I had not felt it for years. It was now rough, chapped.
Here he was, his face barely recognizable from the contortions brought on by pain. Dirt had settle into the creases of his skin and the grizzled facial hair had taken over everything else. I gingerly pulled back the sheets. He was naked, I recognized immediately, as I quickly dropped the sheets. I saw naked men dozens a day, but somehow seeing him exposed in this way seemed wrong. His right leg was bandaged, blood seeping through onto the mattress, mingling with his urine. Somehow his bandage had been missed by the orderlies this morning. He needed bathing. And clean bedding.
His eyes stared ahead fixedly or furtively darted about but they only saw things that I could not.
I felt his dry, feverish skin beneath my fingertips. His nails had grown long and they were blackened with grime. When he realized there was a hand touching his, he clasped it holding fast as if clinging to life. Somehow mine still fit perfectly within his.
But he did not know it was me.
His lips moved but he never spoke out loud. I leaned in to try to listen but the whispers made no sense. Sevastopol. Knife. My knife. Brandy. Now. Knife. Anna.
I sat silently allowing him to hold my hand for nigh on two hours. Eventually his thrashing about calmed. There was no more groaning. His tensed muscles began to relax. At last he slipped into a fitful slumber.
It was then, once the confusion of my unsettled brain wore off, that the meaning of the fever sank into my consciousness. Infection! He was dying. The orderlies had stopped changing his bandages. He had been marked for death.
This could not be.
My mind raced. Maybe carbolic acid could help once infection had started, if it could prevent infection as Dr. Jenkins had suggested. I stood and quickly ran to the store room, my heart pounding. As I rounded a corner, my foot caught on an uneven bit of wooden plank flooring and I fell forward, catching myself on my hands and knees. One of the sisters, passing by helped me up by the elbow. Her name was Flora.
“What happened? Are you alright?” Concern showed on her face.
I looked down at my hands. The abrasions smarted. My knees also stung but I was afraid to look at them just yet. I should have been paying attention.
“I am fine, thank you.” I smoothed out my skirt, dusting it off. I wanted to tell her, to enlist her help. But I was afraid. She patted my arm reassuringly, then went on her way.
At the storeroom at the far end of the hospital I located fresh bandages and a bottle of carbolic acid and a knife. Fortunately no one stopped me or asked questions, they were distracted sorting through the most recent meager shipment of supplies.
Back at the bedside, my hands shook as I pulled off the old bandage, eliciting a few shouted curses from him. The wound was at his upper thigh, was a purulent mess. After flushing the area with water, I attempted to debride the necrotic tissue as I had seen the surgeons do at Scutari. He was in terrible pain, but it could not be helped. There was no more laudanum available in all of the British hospitals in the Crimea.
“Mrs. Aspern? Do you need help?” A young, fresh faced orderly stood at the foot of the bed wide eyed.
“No.” Then I hesitated. I did not want him watching me. The less he knew the better. “Fetch me some clean sheets. Please.” He nodded and dashed off. That will take him a while. The hospital was short on clean linen, too. The sheets were often stolen by those doing the laundry, sold in the villages to supplement their meager incomes.
I looked around after he left. Other soldiers were sitting up in their beds or propped up on elbows watching, curious. I nodded at them, and went back to work.
After soaking the new bandage in the phenol, I wrapped up the wound again. I sat down, holding his hand until he was peaceful once more.
Why had they not amputated his leg? How long had he been here? The hospital was not as large as Scutari but it still housed hundreds of the wounded. How long could I have missed him?
Finally, I had to go. We were not allowed in the wards past 8:30 in the evening in an effort to maintain the spotless reputation of the nursing staff. We are a hospital, not a bordello, Mrs. Aspern. I did not want to leave him. I contemplated risking breaking the rules but now that he was here, I could not afford dismissal. I needed to be with him.
I leaned over close to his ear. “I need you,” I whispered softly. Then I slipped my hand from his. He opened his eyes and looked right at me. I was not sure that he heard me, however, as there was no recognition in his eyes.
I turned back to look at him after a few steps. His eyes were closed, a painful grimace played on his face.
Old wounds rubbed raw.
To have gone so long without him and then see him like this…I prayed to God that he did not pass this night, that he would not die without me. The aching in my chest that I had had all along, now I knew why. There were tears locked inside my heart but I had forgotten how to set them free. Somehow I knew that they were holding me together, that to let them free was to allow myself to fade away with them.
I sat on the end of my bed, not sure if I was feeling joy or sadness. If I laid down instead, I was afraid that I would fall asleep. So I sat up and held vigil in my tiny cloistered room through the night, praying for his soul and for mine. A wooden cross hung over my bed and a small print of the beatific Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus on her knee hung in a simple thin frame on the wall by the wash basin, thanks to the Sisters of Mercy. I prayed at first to God. Then I thought that the Virgin might understand my prayer better and I asked her to intercede for me. She was a woman, after all. Perhaps she would understand?
The candle burned for hours then sputtered out, leaving me in darkness.