Authors: Jennifer Vanderbes
She tried to clear her mind; collapsing onto her bedroll, she devoured a C ration can—cold hash and potatoes—letting the salt and grease melt in her mouth. As rain needled the tent, she
imagined a summer day back in Charlesport. She envisioned the white wicker chaise on the front porch, a row of cool potted ferns. Juliet almost tasted the thick salt air, heard her father’s deep voice from within the house. But when she tried to insert Tuck into the scene—maybe he’d be playing checkers with her as they waited for dinner—the image grew cloudy. Whether she was summoning a memory or a fantasy, Juliet could not have said. Seven months had passed since the awful telegram; almost two years since she waved good-bye to him at the bus depot. It troubled her that her grasp on the details of their past was fading.
She thumbed through a dog-eared
Stars and Stripes,
months old, featuring three articles on the Salerno landings, about which she’d already gathered every grueling, useless fact. (She knew that Tuck’s division had pushed north from Salerno to Naples, and that he went missing sometime after they crossed the Volturno—but she had little information beyond that.) Juliet surveyed her books and Glenda’s pile of
magazines, and finally grabbed Bernice’s knitting needles and added a few lumpy stitches to a scarf before undoing them and setting the needles beside a box of letters.
Remembering the patient’s envelopes, Juliet dug through her apron. Stiff with mud and blood, the first envelope crackled as she shook free a small, worn photograph of a young woman posed on the steps of a single-story clapboard house. The woman’s hair was tied back, and her gingham dress fell loosely, as though trying to obscure any suggestion of a figure. She smiled tiredly and somewhat crookedly, one of those smiles, Juliet knew, that came from posing too long. A thin band glinted on her ring finger.
So, the troubled soldier had a wife.
Juliet slid the photo back in the envelope and pulled out a letter; she stared at the address for a moment, taken aback: Private Christopher Barnaby, 88th Infantry Division, 349th Infantry Regiment, Rifle Company C—Tuck’s company. She brought the envelope to her chest, heart thumping, and then remembered that each
company consisted of several hundred men. Unless Private Barnaby was in the same platoon as Tuck was, he’d likely be of little use. Still, it was the first shred of hope in months.
Setting the letter in her lap, Juliet lay back down and smiled.
All sixty cots in Recovery Tent One were filled. The bandaged men, their limbs suspended in bright white casts, looked like creatures caught in a giant web of intravenous tubing. Juliet checked the med schedule on the nurses’ desk and then made her way from bed to bed to take temperatures, administer penicillin and morphine, rewrap bandages, offer cups of water. Except for the occasional cough, the tent was quiet.
“Ah, Nurse! I’ll die of thirst!”
At the far end, a corpulent man fanned his pink face with a Sears, Roebuck catalog. In the sweat-beaded crescent above his undershirt hung a gold cross, his chest rising and falling with each raspy breath.
He seized the water glass from Juliet and with each long sip his Adam’s apple bobbed; the glass emptied, he looked despairingly to the heavens. “What’s left of me?” he muttered.
Juliet checked the clipboard, where several notes had been scratched out; added in a different script were the words
very serious condition
“I told them, malaria or typhoid. The food here, it’s entirely unsanitary. Rats everywhere. And cockroaches! Oh, Italian cockroaches are very crafty.”
Juliet set her palm on his forehead, warm and sticky.
“I have the chills, you see. And a pain in my right side. And headaches, splitting headaches. A hammer pounding in my skull. But also, I’m burning up, and there are these swollen glands in my
throat. Like walnuts. Here.” He led her hands to the soft fleshy bumps of his lymph nodes, which made Juliet suspicious. She slid a thermometer in his mouth and checked his bedpan.
“Don’t forget to urinate, Father.”
His eyes widened. “No, no, no, no. There’s
in my urine,” he whispered. “They fed me glass.”
“No talking until the thermometer is out,” she scolded. “I’m going to run a Widal test for typhoid, and draw blood for a malaria test.” With childlike terror he watched her shove back his sleeve and insert a needle. “If it’s malaria, we can give you Atabrine. For typhoid, the symptoms will generally subside. If any coughing begins, we’ll do a lung X-ray for TB.”
“Two degrees above normal,” she said, wiping down the instrument. She laid a wet cloth on his forehead. “Get some rest, Father. Patients are sleeping and we should keep it quiet.”
“Oh, but I need something for the pain or I’m going to let myself swell up like a balloon. I can’t sleep. What would really help, what would really perch the angels on your shoulders for eternity, would be a sip of medicinal brandy.”
“Have a sleeping pill.” From an unmarked bottle of aspirin, Juliet shook out a tablet. “Twenty minutes, and you’ll be sleeping like a baby.”
As she leaned forward to adjust his blanket, his thick hand landed on her hip. “Such kindness,” he whispered, sliding his palm up and down. “The angels are all over you.”
“If they are,” she said, stepping away, “I’m betting they don’t like to be groped.”
Throughout the night, the ward was full of breathing, the intimate breaths of human sleep. Juliet paced the dimly lit tent. Here
and there a bed creaked as a patient thrashed in the privacy of a dream. Occasionally, she checked a bandage, trying not to rouse the sleeper. As the hours stretched on, her eyes began to ache with exhaustion. Rules forbade sitting down (in case she fell asleep), so as she walked she recited the periodic table to herself, and when in the last heavy hours of darkness her limbs began to revolt, she windmilled her arms. Despite this exertion, her eyes had begun to drift closed when two surgeons appeared with a litter, letting the soft white light of morning spill into the tent.
“No more beds?” asked Dr. Lovelace, his eyes pink and ragged.
“The best I can do is the floor.”
“Well, Private Barnaby won’t know the difference. He’ll be lucky if he has broccoli left for a brain.” Dr. Lovelace was the hospital’s chief trauma surgeon. Brawny and thickly bearded, he was also, according to Glenda, exceptionally wealthy.
Dr. Mallick stood silently. He was short and pigeon-breasted and had the wide-eyed look of someone holding his breath, perhaps for decades.
“Psst. Is that Private Barnaby?” This question came from the Senator, squinting against a band of sunlight.
“Go back to sleep, Munson,” whispered Juliet.
“You can’t put Barnaby on the ground. Enough’s enough already. Give the poor sod my bed.” With evident annoyance, the Senator yanked loose his bedsheet and settled on the narrow strip of floor between cots. He burrowed his face in the crook of his arm, sighing with exasperation. In the silence that followed, he seemed aware of Juliet’s puzzled stare. “It’s nothing,” he said. “I’m used to sleeping on the ground.”
The doctors held the litter steady, and Juliet eased Barnaby’s body onto the cot. Through the thick gauze, the rasp of his breathing had an insect-like quality; he seemed an entirely different creature from the one in the ambulance. Bandages and casts were like cocoons, thought Juliet, and the person who would eventually
emerge would look entirely unfamiliar. From her pocket she pulled the Saint Christopher medal, rinsed of blood, and fixed the clasp around his neck.
“If you’ll excuse us,” said Dr. Lovelace, “we’ve still got two thoracotomies, a laparotomy, and one crappy flashlight. Wish us luck.” He gave Juliet a sportsmanlike hug, resolutely patting her back. Lovelace was known for this—hugging his entire surgical team after every operation.
As they left, she looked at her watch—thirty more wearying minutes until her shift’s end. Around her men lay splayed and motionless in the last firm grip of slumber, and the sight made her desperate for rest. It became an ache. To pass the time, she turned over a page on one of the clipboards and drew a tic-tac-toe board. She had played almost a dozen games when from a nearby corner a voice rose with panic. “Hello? Is anyone there? Please, someone!”
Juliet rushed to the man, whose bandaged head was swinging in desperate arcs.
“I’m here,” she whispered. “You’re in a field hospital. It’s okay.”
He stopped moving. His eyes were wide open, his pupils strangely dilated, like the shocked eyes of a dead fish.
“Jesus, I thought I was taken prisoner. When can I take these bandages off?” He touched his eyelids, then his eyebrows, and blinked several times, poking his fingertips at his eyes as terror slowly took hold of his face.
Juliet skimmed his medical sheet. “Lieutenant Geiger. A piece of shrapnel pierced your helmet. It severed your optic nerves.”
“Well . . . just turn on the lights.”
“That bit of shrapnel, it
the nerves that control your vision.”
“But my eyes don’t hurt.”
“It happened inside your head. I think you’re blind.”
“How do I know you’re not a German trying to trick me? A Kraut nurse who speaks English?” He slowly crossed his arms,
raised his chin. “So tell me, Miss America, what’s the name of Roosevelt’s dog?”
Juliet paused, wanting to give him a few more seconds of hope. But in the uncertain silence, his upper lip trembled, and she finally whispered: “I’m sorry. Fala.”
A tear traveled the ridge of his cheekbone and pooled above his lip; he was quite handsome. It was strange to think he would never see his face again; he would never see himself grow old. Years from now, as a man of fifty, he would imagine himself exactly like this.
“Why don’t you get a little more sleep?” She handed him a cup.
“Mmmmm. Brandy. At least I can taste.”
Juliet hung his clipboard on a small hook on the end of his cot, and at the sound of her leaving he asked, “Would you stay? Just until I fall asleep?”
He had clenched his hands, nervously kneading his thumbs into his fists, and she wondered at the last thing he had seen, if it had imprinted on his mind, like a lightbulb turned off.
“Of course,” she said, sitting beside him.
The Officers’ Mess surged noisily as a crowd of doctors and nurses came off the night shift. The food line snaked through the dozen long tables, and as Juliet reached the front she ladled four heapings of watery scrambled eggs into her metal bowl, hoping to devour as much hot food as possible before getting some sleep. Settling in a corner alone, she began to ravenously fork the curled wet strips of egg into her mouth, but when she saw Mother Hen approach, she slowed her intake.
“Lieutenant Dufresne!” Mother Hen slid beside her on the bench, hip to hip, and gazed wearily at the bustling tent. In a somewhat devious whisper she asked, “How did your overnight shift go?”
Juliet’s mind quickly scanned the night’s events to see if anything
she had done might be a violation of protocol. “Just fine,” she answered uncertainly.
“And you’re settling in well with the unit?”