Authors: Jennifer Vanderbes
“Yes, Captain Henfield.”
Mother Hen turned toward her. “I’ve been watching you, and I think you’ve adapted quite well to this new environment. I can see you’ve got character, and grit. You can’t teach grit.” Mother Hen reached for Juliet’s piece of toast. “May I?”
“Of course, Captain Henfield.”
Mother Hen narrowed her eyes reflectively as she chewed. “In 1854, Nurse Dufresne, when Florence Nightingale arrived in Scutari, do you know what she saw? Men wrapped in filthy bandages. Men lying all day beside overflowing bedpans. Injured men abandoned on the battlefield for days. Misery you cannot possibly fucking fathom. Why? Because in the midst of the Crimean War, no one knew what he should be doing and when. But since she revolutionized nursing, hospitals are arranged so that we all know what we should be doing at any given time. It’s not a thing to take for granted. And it’s crucial to the war effort that each of us knows precisely what we should be doing and also that we should be assigned the tasks to which we are most naturally suited. It’s hard enough fighting the Germans; why fight our own natures? Nurse Dufresne, when I saw you with Private Barnaby, I saw attentiveness, commitment. I’d be remiss in my job if I ignored that. So I have decided to promote you. I’m assigning you as Private Barnaby’s personal nurse. You alone are to deal with his wound dressings, his bathing, his intravenous feeding, his defecation, his urination needs, at all hours necessary. Don’t let any of the ward men near him. Are we understood?”
“Yes, Captain Henfield. Thank you.” Juliet blushed with pride.
“I knew you would respond to the call of duty.” She slid off the bench and brushed crumbs from her uniform. “Carry on.”
Glenda Texas, carrying over her breakfast tray, raised
an eyebrow as the chief nurse left.
“You in trouble already?”
“I’ve been promoted.”
“Oh, no, the promotion demotion!” Glenda settled across from Juliet. “The woman is a master.”
“You’re saying I haven’t been promoted?”
“Promoted to do whatever job the rest of the gals don’t want. A true bedpan commando.”
“I’m supposed to care for the soldier who shot himself.”
“Sugar, it’s like the biggest bird in the world just took a crap on your head.”
Juliet looked dejectedly into her eggs. She felt stupid. “Well, someone needs to care for him.”
“You’ve got to admire her, really. She pulls it off every time.
is how people win wars. The woman was born into the army. She’s got one sister in the Philippines running a field hospital. And another sister somewhere here in Europe working as a nurse. Her brother was in North Africa with a cav division. Her mother was an army nurse in the Great War. And there are rumors she’s a real flesh-and-blood
-scendant of Miss Florence Nightingale herself.”
“Except Florence Nightingale never married,” said Juliet.
“That never stopped the gals in Texas from bearing progeny.”
“Who’s bearing progeny?” asked Dr. Lovelace, joining their table. Dr. Mallick sat beside Juliet. Stubble matted his face and gray sideburns sprouted below his ears. Lovelace raised his cup: “To the graveyard shift.”
Dr. Mallick probed his food with his fork. “I’ve never seen a foreign object lodged in the cerebral cortex without causing devastating tissue damage,” he said. “Astonishing recovery taking into account Private Barnaby’s cerebral hemorrhaging.”
“They should have shipped Humpty Dumpty home the first time he cracked,” said Dr. Lovelace.
“The first time?” asked Juliet.
“That’s right, you missed the sordid tale. This was maybe seven or eight months back . . . where were we, Glenda?”
“Near Monte Petrella. Or maybe Monte Fammera. At the base of one of those massive Italian granite
“Monte Fammera, that’s right. When Barnaby was in McKnight’s squad. The boy took a bullet in the shoulder. Minor musculocutaneous injury, nothing ten minutes on the table couldn’t fix. But whatever he saw
he took the lead scared the hair off him. He had a set of shakes like I’ve never seen.”
Much of what Dr. Lovelace said was lost on Juliet because she’d been immediately struck by the name. “He was in Sergeant
squad?” she asked.
“Affirmative. And when Captain Brilling came to visit, the kid had some kind of breakdown and tried to run. Brilling thought he was going to desert. That was a sight. Brilling reassigned Barnaby to a different platoon, as BAR man. The canary in the tunnel. Those kids last an average of ten minutes in combat. I’m amazed he made it this long. But I guess he couldn’t take it anymore, tried to do himself in. Sadder than Samson, if you ask me.”
“How long was he with McKnight’s squad?” Juliet asked.
“My, my, Nurse Dufresne. You sweet on Bruce McKnight?”
“I’ve just heard of him, that’s all.”
“Well, I’d be glad to make an introduction. Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if Barnaby got a court-martial for desertion. They’re trying to crack down, starting to issue death sentences.”
Juliet shook her head in disbelief. “But we just worked all night to
Private Barnaby—they can’t sentence him to death.”
Dr. Mallick set down his fork and slowly clapped his hands; then Dr. Lovelace clapped, and Glenda joined in. People at nearby tables—half-tired, half-bored, intrigued by the bewildering scene—began to clap as well.
“The new arrival has fully joined us!” said Dr. Lovelace. “Welcome
to our absurdist little field hospital! We also go without sleep for days to save men so they can go get shot again. Very rewarding work, indeed.”
Embarrassed, Juliet struggled to say something articulate, something to mask her inexperience. “Well, it strikes me as unjust that boys who try to serve, who ship over here but maybe can’t hack it, end up sentenced to death, when the conscientious objectors stay home doing volunteer work.”
“Truth be told,” said Lovelace, “not a single desertion death sentence has been carried out.
“Everyone objects to dying, Nurse Dufresne,” said Dr. Mallick. “Conscientious objectors object to killing. The medics here get picked off faster than BAR men. They are quite courageous.”
“Have y’all forgotten?” Glenda clucked her tongue and pointed at a handwritten sign taped to the side of the tent:
No politics before noon
“Then let’s talk about the Goumiers.”
“Again?” sighed Glenda.
“Maybe the new girl hasn’t heard the story. Juliet, may I call you Juliet? Juliet, do you know about the Goumiers? The Goumiers are from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Now you know we were stalled at Monte Cassino for months, but these men, these African climbing geniuses, scaled a five-thousand-foot peak in the Aurunci Mountains just south of Cassino to single-handedly break through the Gustav Line. What took the rest of the army months, they did in three days. Three. Chasing the Germans into the Liri Valley.”
“Goumiers,” Juliet repeated vacantly, distracted by the fact that Private Barnaby had once been in Tuck’s squad. This was the closest she’d come to finding someone who might know her brother. She noisily scraped up the cold remains of her eggs, shoved them into her mouth, and stood.
“I almost forgot,” said Glenda, grabbing Juliet’s wrist. “Did you see our poor ailing Father?”
Lovelace palmed his forehead in exasperated disbelief. “Typhoid. Malaria. Chicken pox. The man claims to have everything.”
“Well, he’s sick all right,” said Juliet. “So, I ran some tests.”
“You mean he’s not goldbricking? Well, I’ll be darned.”
“As it turns out,” Juliet said, “the chaplain has syphilis.”
Dr. Lovelace set his fork decidedly on his plate. “Sometimes I just don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
In her tent, Juliet resisted the urge to throw herself onto her bedroll and instead rummaged the depths of her musette bag. She’d brought every letter Tuck had sent, and now shuffled anxiously through the pages, scanning the names:
David Rakowski, Dick English, Geronimo, Dudley (the Duke) Draper, John Kendall, Rex Appleyard, Glen Mooney, Sergeant Bruce McKnight.
No Christopher Barnaby.
She set down the letters. She lined them up and flattened them as though that might order her thoughts. Dr. Lovelace had said Barnaby was in Sergeant McKnight’s squad seven or eight months earlier—close to the time Tuck disappeared. Tuck, who’d made a point of writing about every man he served with, hadn’t once mentioned Barnaby. Was it possible, she wondered, that Lovelace was wrong about when Barnaby had been shot? Or was her luck so abominably rotten that she’d found a man who joined her brother’s squad just after Tuck’s disappearance?
The thought struck her with a thud: Was Barnaby her brother’s replacement?
The word brought flashes of Barnaby’s ruined face. Bone, blood. The disgorged eye. If Tuck’s replacement had done
to himself, then . . . No. The possibility her imagination had let loose
made Juliet so uncomfortable that she stuffed the letters back in her bag.
She sat very still. Thus far, she’d prevented her mind from wandering gory paths, and she wasn’t going to allow it to start now. Barnaby was a connection, a link, to Tuck, and she simply had to utilize that.
Juliet took out a clean sheet of V-mail.
Somewhere in Italy
Dear Father & Pearl,
My request for a transfer came through and I’m at a field hospital about five miles from the front. All the tents have big red crosses on them, so you can sleep peacefully. This hospital is much smaller than the one in Naples—only eighteen nurses for about 120 patients, though right now we have almost 200. The evacuation hospitals farther back are overflowing, so we just set the men on the ground and wait. The doctors have been performing about eighty operations a day and everyone shuffles around like sleepwalkers.
Was it like this when you were in Belgium, Papa? Is this why you never spoke about it?
I’m living in a pup tent with two other nurses: Glenda La Bouvier from Abilene, Texas, and Bernice Murchstone, an anesthetist from Iowa. Glenda is definitely the belle of the ball here; she can tap-dance and sing and knows the words to any song you can think of. She tracks everyone’s birthday in a calendar and arranges festivities.
Bernice keeps to herself and suffers from awful insomnia. She seems to knit herself to sleep. My first night here, before bed, her face all greasy with cold cream, she sat there for hours with a ball of yarn in her lap and two knitting needles clicking and clacking like they were having a sword fight. Everyone calls her “Bernether.” But Glenda loves her. She told me that
Bernice lost her parents to the influenza epidemic in 1918 and grew up in orphanages. So I try to be as forgiving as possible.
The girls swear this tent can be collapsed and packed in under an hour, but from the look of it, you’d think we were settled in for the long haul. Glenda decorated it with purple and yellow silks she bought in Rome and some silver trinkets from North Africa.
It’s been raining nonstop, so Glenda put Vaseline along the tent seams and that stops the dripping for a few hours at a time. It’s cozy. We have a little woodstove, but haven’t had a moment yet to cook so we make do with rations and what the mess gives us.
Forgive me again for the way I left, but here is where I can make the most difference.
Juliet studied her final words. She had never told her father and Pearl that she enlisted to try to get close to where Tuck went missing, and if they guessed it, they had opted to avoid a confrontation. When she had written from Basic Training, they accepted her explanation of patriotic duty. And she had dutifully written once a week, sometimes twice, always careful to clarify she was in no danger, and always careful not to mention Tuck. Yet it was now unavoidable; the question was crucial. She added:
PS: I’ve a new patient who served in the same unit as Tuck—Private Christopher Barnaby. Do you recall Tuck writing about him? It’s possible some old letters arrived since I left. Please let me know.
She sealed the letter.
Outside the rain had lightened, and in the gray mist Juliet trudged toward the Post Exchange, where a small supply convoy
had parked in a tidy line. Empty barrels flanked the massive water truck. Beside the mailbox, where she slipped her letter, a stocky young man jumped down from an army truck. He reached back for two black suitcases, a white cross on the side of each, and curled them to his chin like free weights.
“They sent a new chaplain before they sent plasma?” Juliet blurted.
“Reporting for duty with the 42nd Field Hospital.” His hair was dark brown, neatly combed, thinning slightly at the front, though he couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. His nose was large and beak-like, his eyes small and dark and alert. Pinpricks of acne clustered beneath his temples.
“Father MacDougal fell ill just a few days ago,” she said.