Chapter Forty-Six: Parasites

My hair fell into a great reddish-brown cloud at my feet, illuminated by the cold early morning sunlight that crept through the window in the washroom. Tears caught in my throat, making it difficult to swallow. I was parting with the one thing that defined who I was, what made me Evelyn.

I had no choice. Lice!

They were everywhere. A personal infestation was inevitable. I had tried all of the remedies I could find, short of mercury. Kerosene, sulfur mixed in lard, nit combs daily for weeks at a time, vinegar. Nothing worked for long.

In the end, it was too much. The itch in my scalp along with the raised, itchy sores on my body from the bed bugs were driving me to the brink of insanity. I rid myself of the mattress, choosing instead to sleep on the wooden slats. I washed the sheets and blankets and clothing myself in boiling water once a week.

Then I had cut off my hair. I used the scissors myself and cropped it as short as I could without assistance. My white uniform cap would hide it well for the most part but I was still losing a part of myself. I worked as fast as I could. I had a full day of work ahead of me.

My hand ran across the short stubble that now lay across my scalp. That should do it. It felt better once the deed was done. It would grow back.

I spent the rest of the day sorting through new arrivals from the ships, dressing wounds and telling the orderlies who to bathe. Nurses were not allowed to touch the men in certain areas and bathing them was strictly forbidden. In fact, there was so much fear over the men’s lusts, they were given bromide to curb it. Never mind the fact that the majority here could not begin to act on any desires they may have felt. It was the orderlies that needed something, the whole lying, stealing, cheating lot of them.

By the time the wounded finally reached Scutari, the layers of accumulated filth had to be addressed. Much of the clothing had to be burned. Patients were triaged. The actively dying over there, those requiring surgery over here, those with fevers including those with typhus and cholera were sent to other side of the hospital in the hopes that they would not infect others from their relative isolation. Not that it helped any at all.

I moved through the dozens of new arrivals, careful to not breathe through my nose so as to avoid the stench. Camphor could only do so much.

There were missing limbs, gangrene, camp fever, dysentery, chill blains. Faces swollen from dental abscesses. Malnutrition. Boils.

One young man had lost his left eye. The ear on that side was hanging off, only attached by a small bridge of flesh. Much of the tissue was rotting, but he would not allow anyone to remove it, even if it meant his death.

Another had a wound on his chest that had not received attention for weeks. When I pulled back his shirt, I was taken aback by the mass of maggots writhing in the cavity. I began scooping them out by hand.

For the most part now, though, I was numb to the horror. I had spent several hours one night crying but not because of the death here. I was crying because I could not feel the sadness anymore that I thought all of that death should warrant. I had become something less than human. Then, I realized how much of a blessing this numbness was. Some women never reached that point and it broke them. Others looked for other ways out.

Like Madge. At dinner, Madge announced to everyone that she would be leaving in a few weeks. She was marrying one of the men she had nursed back to health. This prompted a rare visit to the dormitory by Ms. Nightingale. She was livid. Her face red, she demanded that Madge pack her belongings and leave immediately, telling her that she was a disgrace. Never mind the fact that there was nowhere for her to go.

It was then that I decided finally to leave Scutari.

Chapter Thirty-Nine: Battle Plans

I reported back to the dispensary.

Blood on my apron was not the end of the world, by itself. Blood flowed in rivers here. It was the Crimea, after all.

But he had marked me. Again.

I threw the apron onto the fire. I would be damned if I was going to let him do this to me. I slipped away quietly to retrieve a fresh apron from the dormitories.

The question became what was I going to do now? Leave? And go where? Back to Cambridge? To London? To Edinburgh?

My heart was still pounding when I arrived back. I settled myself down in a wobbly, worn chair to make bandages and to think. Hours passed.

I had come here, to Scutari, to atone for my sins in service to the suffering. Across the channel leading to the Black Sea, the magnificent Hagia Sofia could be seen at the skyline. But here, in the converted Turkish military barracks that now served as the main hospital, evil reigned. One could not tell from the outside. The complex was a huge white stone square with tall towers in each corner that appeared sterile and efficient. Inside was a different matter. The whitewashed corridors housed hundreds of the mangled and deformed on cots lined up in rows beneath the arches. I had been here for six months, bathing bloodied soldiers, cleaning excrement caked bedpans and chamber pots, making bandages, assisting in the kitchens, scrubbing the floors. We were battling the miasma, the mysterious “thing” that brought infection and death.

“Evie!” I looked up. It was one of my bunk mates, Marjorie “Madge” Henson. Her pudgy middle had thinned out since coming here. One could not eat to silence your hunger when you knew thousands were starving in the cold. She stooped low and spoke in hushed tones so no one else could overhear. “The headmistress wants to speak to you!” I was not surprised. Somehow I knew he would not leave me alone.

Madge tucked a wisp of black hair back under her cap. “What did you do?” she whispered.

I sighed. “I will soon find out.” Standing, I stretched the stiffness out of my back and shoulders, steeling myself for what must come.

I climbed the stairs in the north tower to reach her throne room. On the first landing, I heard footsteps coming down. It was him. He paused to smile lasciviously at me as I passed, making sure he brushed my arm. I wanted to kick him in his most vulnerable region. Instead, I walked past him, careful to smile confidently back at him. Two more flights of stairs. I paused a moment to catch my breath.

I knocked softly on the door.

“Enter!” The sharp, commanding tone made me wince.

The blood had already drained from my fingertips and I could not feel the cold knob as the door creaked open.

And there she was. I had held audience with her only twice before. Once when I had first arrived, begging her to let me stay. We cannot pay you…but we will hold you to the same standards all of the other nursing staff. And once when I had been reported for sneaking out to the docks after midnight. We demand all of our staff to be above reproach. We cannot have someone destroying the reputation of this institution. She referred to herself in the third person, as if she were the queen. But here, in Scutari, she was.

This day, she was in a dark gray wool dress with a full skirt. Wide white cuffs were about her wrists and matched the collar that was fastened at her throat with a plain black broach. Her narrow face seemed pinched; her dark hair was pulled back into a severe knot that was so tight that her forehead seemed even more prominent.

“Mrs. Aspern. Please have a seat.”

I sat in a wooden chair that was only slightly less worn than the one I had just vacated downstairs. I folded my hands in my lap to keep them from trembling. A heavy, dark stained desk sat between us, deep gouges visible across the surface. She had placed a thin sheaf of papers face down in front of her.

“Dr. Jenkins was just here.”

“I gathered that,” I said simply.

“He says you disobeyed his orders and put his patient in jeopardy.”

I remained mute. I was not sure what tack to take. Denial, contrition, the truth?

She continued. “He has been here only five days. He has proven himself indispensable in the surgery and has saved lives that none of the others would touch.”

Again she paused. Again I responded with silence.

“We have dismissed two women this week for being too helpful with him.” She stared at me, her eyes boring holes into my soul. “Do we understand each other?”

I nodded.

“It would be strongly advised to steer clear of Dr. Stewart. If it is a choice between you cleaning vomit or his operations….” She trailed off.

I stood to take my leave.

“Thank you, Ms. Nightingale.” She nodded, then waved her hand in dismissal.

The fact that she, a woman, had been put in charge of any military hospital was remarkable by itself and was a testament to the battle of desperation that had been waged here. Her maintaining that post required numbers. Lives saved.

I understood that I was expendable. At least as far as she was concerned.  But I had a plan.