As I entered the surgery, I could see the physician, his back to the door, hunched over the macerated arm of an unconcious soldier. The light was poor, requiring supplementation from the flame of an oil lantern that had been placed at the poor fellow’s shoulder. The rusty smell of old, dried blood hung in the air. I could see, by the orange glow of the flickering light, drops of fresh blood landing on the floor at the physician’s feet. Plip. Plop. Dripping from the patient’s fingertips. I walked quickly to stand next to the growing puddle, worried about stepping into the blood lest I slip or leave deep red footprints trailing behind me as I moved about.
He was busy suturing the pieces of filleted flesh together, trying to reassemble the poor fellow’s arm. I also noticed that he was using chloroform, as the patient remained quiet throughout the procedure. A chloroform mask lay on the table at his head, the faint sweet smell of the gas wafting to my nostrils from the bit of lint wedged within. The use of anesthesia had been strictly forbidden by the chief of medical staff in the British Expeditionary Army. I wondered how this particular physician had acquired chloroform given the moratorium.
“I was told to come assist you,” I announced softly as I stepped forward.
He looked up and opened his mouth to say a terse thank you, but stopped short.
We recognized each other at exactly the same moment. I could feel the blood drain from my face and my heart land in the pit of my stomach. My fingertips seemed to cease their existence. If it affected him more deeply, I could not tell. He had already returned to his sewing.
I had no idea what I was doing in the surgery as I had spent the entirety of the preceding weeks and months on the wards, making bandages, washing linens. I had come here as a volunteer, not as a trained nurse. He had to guide me step by step…daub here, snip there, hold this, pass that. I stole furtive glances at him from time to time while he was engrossed in his sutures. His furrowed brow. The firmly set jaw clenching and releasing in rhythm to the stitching. There were more creases in his features. Gray was creeping into his beard. Who are you now?
The man’s arm was gradually looking more human and less like ground mutton. You are not a surgeon. Where were the surgeons? They must have been on the battle fields.
“Cut,” he ordered, presenting the suture ends.
“Yes, sir.” I replied hoarsely as I snipped, fumbling with the scissors yet again. It required two attempts to sever the dark thread. I desperately needed to seem capable, confident, unaffected…but had failed.
Finally, he placed the last suture and tied it. I cut the ends. He put down his instruments and stepped back to examine his handiwork. The sutures were even and neat, like little ants marching single file up to the shoulder.
“Just apply a dressing and he’s done.” He finally looked up from the arm to my face. There was a wan smile there. I was not sure how to read it.
My heart sank further as I registered the request. I had not realized it was possible until that moment. I could feel my cheeks flush. I did not want to ask this man for help, but the patient would be the one to suffer and I swallowed my pride.
“I am afraid that I do not know how,” I confessed softly.
He nodded and proceeded to demonstrate the techniques of proper bandage application. At one point his hand brushed mine, producing a shudder. I was not sure if it had been on purpose, his touching me.
The chloroform began to wear off and the man groaned as I cleaned the area with cold water. I gathered the instruments and placed them into a metal tray; the clatter was a welcome distraction.
I did not know what to do now. I stood awkwardly.
“Pain” I quoted Galen, “is useless to the pained.” He arched an eyebrow in surprise. “How did you come to defy Dr. Hall?” I asked.
“If God can be seen as the great anesthetist when he placed Adam into a deep sleep while he removed a rib, then I figure there is a higher power than Dr. Hall.” It seemed highly inappropriate, but I wanted to laugh outright. Nervousness was affecting my reason.
He stepped closer to me. I could smell his stale breath as he looked down at me. He must have brought some scotch with him to this godforsaken place. The hairs at the back of my neck stood up on end. I took a cautious step back.
“What is the matter, Evelyn?” He grinned. My breath caught. “Yes, I do remember your name.”
The man on the table let out an even louder groan as I tried to move around the man blocking my path. He reached out his right hand to stop me, grabbing me about the waist.
Leave me alone, you bastard!
“If you touch me again, I will scream for help.”
He moved his hand but did not step back. “And then say what when I explain to everyone how we happen to know each other so well?”
“Leave me alone,” I muttered, then pushed past him and out of the room. I looked down at my apron. His bloody handprint was there. I quickly untied the white smock and wadded it up in my arms. I prayed I would not get caught out of uniform. I walked until I believed my footfalls would be out of earshot, then I ran. As I ran through the maze of corridors, all of my fears came to life. I had not thought about this man in years. I had buried him, expunged him. But here he was. In the Crimea?