The next morning, as soon as the sun was up, I ran to check on my Nathaniel. I said a silent prayer of thanksgiving to God and to the Virgin. I had been heard.
He was still there, still incoherent, still feverish. But he was alive. I changed out the bandage, cleaned the wound which now had less of the purulence, and reapplied the carbolic acid. I could see his pain was great, but tried to detach myself from it. It was necessary.
I spoon fed him the morning rations of tea, bread, and broth, giving extra care to soak the dry, stale bread in the broth to ensure that he did not choke on it. Then I enlisted a passing orderly to help change the sheets. The fellow from the night before had apparently returned after I had left, leaving the fresh sheets on the table by the bed.
I debated bathing him. After knowing him so intimately, and then not at all for so long, the act itself seemed so much more than clinical. It was the right thing and wrong thing to do all at once. I postponed a decision. I had duties to attend to elsewhere. I would return later.
The Castle Hospital had been my home for three months now. Spring was dawning outside. The wind still blew cold but the sun was warm. Sometimes I took a few minutes to just close my eyes and stand in the sunshine, letting it clean my soul. I had no time for that this morning.
I had been put to work almost immediately upon my arrival. I was given menial tasks like washing floors and cleaning chamber pots, things the orderlies should have done. I understood that I was being tested so I bore my burden dutifully and without complaining.
“Mrs. Aspern, today you are needed in the kitchen.” I would spend the day kneading bread until my arms ached.
“Mrs. Aspern, today you will work in the laundry.” I would spend the day scrubbing sheets with my arms in lye, burning and chapped.
“Mrs. Aspern, you are needed in the scullery today.” I would peel potatoes and chop onions for hours until the smell of onions eked from my pores and my eyes were blinded from the burning.
After several weeks of these tasks, I was allowed on the wards.
Nurses were not allowed to bathe patients. That was left to the male orderlies. Generally speaking, the orderlies were either morally or physically unable to serve in the army. They were quite the unpredictable collection. Between absenteeism and alcoholism it was a wonder they did anything they were told. In the end, there was quite a bit that the nursing staff was left to make up for when the orderlies failed to perform their duties.
I had no issues with bathing a male patient and in short order, that was my given assignment as the sisters themselves wanted nothing to do with a naked male body. There was no purity left in me and I did not fear my reputation.
I also fed, bandaged, and assisted in surgeries when needed, working long hours. From time to time I would return to the kitchens or laundry if needed. The repetitive, mindless work was a welcome and necessary break.
When the noon meal arrived, I returned to Nathaniel’s bedside. I again fed him. He would look at me now and seemed to see me, but he did not appear to remember who I was. Had I changed so much? As I left, he whispered a soft, “Thank you.” My heart soared.
My right hand, however, was hurting. At first I thought the scrape had been rubbed raw from the morning chores but through the afternoon, redness and swelling began to develop. It became difficult to move it.
Infection. I had washed my hands after cleaning and dressing Nathaniel’s wound, but soap and water were no match for my scraped and open skin from my fall. I was unsure what to do. Should I show one of the surgeons?
Instead, I hurried to Nathaniel again at the end of the day. As I neared his bed, I saw that he was sitting up, feeding himself.
Suddenly, I panicked. I could not let him see me! Not like this. My hair was still terribly short. My dress was drab and dirty and still bore the wine stain on the sleeve. What if he did not like what he saw? Could I bear the rejection? I had been with other men since I had last been with him. I was suddenly ashamed of that. I thought I had heard him say the name “Anna” yesterday. What if he were married? Should I tell him about our son Levi and that he was dead?
No. I could not go to him.
I turned quickly back to the open doorway of the ward. I made it a few steps, then hesitated. The men who had been watching gave me puzzled looks. I ignored them and started towards the door again.
But wait! I turned back. I needed to let him know that I was here.
Yet, I could not. Ultimately, I lacked the necessary courage when it came to him. I clenched my hands into fists, the pain from the right one bringing tears to my eyes that I blinked away. Instead, I quickly and quietly left the ward, not sure if I could go back.