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.