Chapter Forty-One: Learning

I did not want to kill him. No. I wanted something more sinister, more painful.

The work I did here at Scutari was mind numbing but necessary. It left my brain free to wander. To plan.

“Mrs. Aspern!” The sharp tone brought me round instantly. I looked up from The bandages. An orderly was at the doorway. A look of disdain washed over his face. “Dr. Jenkins requests your assistance.”

I stood.

This was what I had been waiting for. Days had passed and I had been afraid that my bravado might have sent him away from me for good. Apparently not.

I followed the tall, shuffling orderly to the surgery wing. When I entered the room, I found him alone with an unfortunate soldier whose left leg was clearly unsalvageable. The sickly sweet smell of gangrene was evident. The tourniquet was wound tightly at the upper thigh and the chloroform mask was in place. Muffled groans were audible but there was no struggle. The amputation saw was at the ready.

“Shall I stay to assist, Dr. Jenkins?” The orderly sounded hopeful.

“No, George, you may go. I am sure there are many other places you are needed.”

The orderly looked over knowingly at me, then made his retreat. Did he know this was going to be awful or that I was now a target?

Dr. Jenkins stared blankly at me. No trace of emotion. “Hold his leg there,” he said curtly, pointing to what was left of the lower thigh.

I placed my hands on the shredded flesh, warm and yet cold beneath my fingers. He expertly sawed through the muscles and sinews.

“Hold it tighter for Christ’s sake!” he said through clenched teeth. The savage sawing of the femur bone generated quite a bit of force and holding it steady was near impossible.

Sweat broke out across his forehead as he worked.

Finally, it was done.

“Dispose of that leg in the corner. The orderlies will clear it out later.” He pointed to a spot by the door where two other legs lay.

The weight of the single leg was actually quite a bit heavier than I was expecting. The whole thing was unwieldy as the knee and ankle flopped about and the fractures ground against each other. I stood it up in the corner, balancing it upright somehow. It looked more natural that way.

I returned to his side and assisted with cutting sutures as he sewed the skin and muscle flaps neatly over the stump. Soon, the job was done.

As he threw soiled instruments and bone saws into the bloody basin, I applied a close approximation of a dressing. The patient grimaced beneath his five day stubble but remained unconscious.

I looked over and caught Dr. Jenkins watching me. He did not turn away even when he realized I had caught him staring.

“What do you want from me?” I asked finally. “What will it take to get you to leave me alone?”

“You know what I want.”

“Why?”

He approached me, leaning against the length of my body, pressing his groin against my hip. He was aroused. His lips were at my ear. “I want control. Of you.”

He pressed in closer. I looked down at his hands. I was relieved. He had already washed them.

I whispered back, “And if I do this, once, you will leave me alone?” I willed myself to stay put, to not back away. He repulsed me so.

“If you wish.”

But we both knew that was a lie.

“Fine,” I said warily. This was crucial. He wanted control, I had to make him believe that he had it.

“My room tonight. At midnight.”

I nodded assent.

Physicians and surgeons on staff had their own private rooms at the other side of the hospital. I would have to be careful to not be seen, particularly as Ms. Nightingale made her nightly rounds.

I was startled by a muffled slap. I looked over at the corner. My leg had toppled over.

“Ah, well. I look forward to it Madame!” He backed away a few inches, laughing unpleasantly. Then, as if on impulse, he stepped toward me again. He took my face in his hands and kissed me violently. I had to choke back vomit as I pushed him away.

He left the operating room, whistling, leaving me alone with the soldier and the severed limbs, unsure of what to do next for the waking man’s pain.

I hurriedly washed my hands in the now bloody water, stirring it into a cloudy, red vortex with my fingers. I dried my hands on a bit of towel left unsoiled by Dr. Jenkins. I knew that while they may appear spotless, there was no possible way that they were clean.

Then I tried to calm the now agitated patient, and hoped that his screams would soon bring an orderly.

I waited.

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