The year is 1918.
Three thousand miles from Boston, in a shell-blasted field near Sallaumines, death lingers. It does not come from stray bullets, or thundering artillery, or bitter green vapors that fill the trenches as the frightened soldiers cry out, “Gas, Gas!”
Death is a village girl, shivering despite her thick woolen blanket. Her lips are purple, hair matted thick with sweat, lungs heaving and gasping and frothing with fluid. They place her on a stretcher and carry her inside the white canvas tent. The field surgeon thinks it gas.
But he is wrong; it is something much worse, and death has come for them.
Death travels quickly. On the morning of August 28th, it arrives at the Receiving Ship of Boston’s Commonwealth Pier. A dozen soldiers are brought to Chelsea Naval Hospital. I can’t imagine what it must be like for them, having survived the horrors of the trenches, having found their way home, knowing that a hot meal and a warm bed are minutes away. Having found peace. Only to be snatched back by the clutches of death, the strongest man made weakest by the fever.
It is the 14th of September at Boston’s City Hospital.
Our head physician, Dr. David Watson, brings me the strongest pot of coffee I can stomach. Two cubes of sugar, just as I like it. Methodical sips stain his brown mustache as we make small talk. We have worked together for two short months, but some days it feels like a lifetime. War has brought us closer.
Our coffee finished, we don surgical masks and gloves, for we fear what is coming. We wait for the first sick child and pray. We do not wait long.
His name is Henry and he is two years old. A sickly pallor fills his visage. Cold sweats wrack his tender frame. He coughs with a rattle, like a steel-wool demon burning white-hot in his chest, as he spits sanguineous bile down the front of his knitted cardigan. I rush him into the only available room. It is small and spartan—only a threadbare curtain for privacy. It smells of alcohol and saline.
The child’s mother is frantic, begging me to do something, “Anything, miss!”
Her name is Martha and she is a mess. Her golden curls are unkempt, her youthful demeanor unsteady. She doesn’t know how to help her son. Neither do I. When I look into her eyes, I see my own. That helpless look—just as I once watched my son suffer from infection, crying out, “Mama, mama!”
Memories burn in my mind’s eye. The year was 1914, and I was the one begging the nurse, and if I had known then what I know today, my son Adam might still be alive. I want to reach out and embrace Martha. I want to tell her everything will be all right, but I cannot, because that is for the physician to say.
I hand her a clipboard and a fountain pen. We must complete the screening, though I often find it fruitless. Does Henry have allergies? Shall we telegram Henry’s next of kin? Is Henry on medication? Martha shakes her head to every question. Her hands tremble. Black ink spills onto the white tile floor. She tries to collect herself. It doesn’t matter; her hands are still shaking. I complete the paperwork for her.
David enters the room, hurried but collected. His voice is rock-steady as he tells us what we already know: It is called the Spanish Flu, and it is death.
“Steady now,” David says to those gathered, “and we’ll make it through together.”
I want more than anything for that to be true.
Martha sits on the bedside beside her son. Her eyes are vacant, hollow. She wipes the spittle from his mouth with a handkerchief and puts it back in her purse. She holds Henry’s hand while David prepares to drain the pleural cavity.
“Be brave. Be strong,” she tells her son. “Don’t be afraid.”
I wonder if she is speaking to herself.
We begin. David remains calm and precise. The anesthetic needs more time, but it does not matter, because Henry needs to breathe, now! I turn my head away because I cannot bear to watch. The needle goes in. I hold down Henry’s arms while he screams. Martha holds his legs. Henry’s heartbeat rises as his life hangs on a knife’s edge.
His scoured lungs gulp clean air and David sighs in relief, wiping the sweat from his brow. Henry is crying less because the anesthetic has taken, and he cannot feel pain in his chest. For a brief moment, he is at peace. He is safe. But we have not saved him yet—Henry’s war has just begun.
It is the 16th of September.
Our small ward has filled completely. Children some, but most are young men and women. The children are fighting for their lives. The men are dying. We give them whiskey and tonic. We drain their lungs and wipe cool rags across their foreheads to dull the fever. We give them ether for the pain. Nothing works. Nothing can cure them.
Never has the sight of blood frightened me, but then again, never have I watched a man hemorrhage from his eyes and ears. He arrived in the morning with a mild cough and left in the afternoon with a white sheet draped across his shoulders. There was nothing I could do but stand in the doorway and watch his lungs betray him.
He tried to speak to me, near the end. I knew there was something so important that he wanted to tell me, something so crucial that his eyes went wide as coals when he realized I couldn’t understand. I walked as close as I could bear, but I couldn’t hear him. The pink-tinged froth had muted him.
David catches me afterwards, scrubbing my hands at the washbin. Over and over and over. Scrubbing. Thinking. Not thinking. Trying so desperately to forget what I had seen. I swallow hard and turn off the water. David nods in understanding.
“When this is all over, I’ll teach you to dance the foxtrot,” he says softly.
“Not now. Please, not today.”
He turns on the water and washes his own hands. There is blood underneath his fingernails. Dirty blood clotted black. I don’t envy him. When he is finished, he puts a warm hand on my shoulder. I welcome the touch. Doctors are not permitted to have relationships with their nurses, but I don’t have the strength left to keep to protocol. My hand matches his.
“We can still save the others,” he says.
I’m not sure if I believe him. I need to clear the image from my mind. I conjure another. Maybe a lost dream I had long ago, a fairytale that seems as surreal and foreign as the concept of peace.
“When this war ends, will you take me to Venice? I’d like to watch fireworks over the bay and ride the gondolas through the river.”
He smiles, the first time I have seen him smile in days. “That’s a promise.”
He returns to his patients, and I tend to mine, and we both smile a little brighter and walk with a chip to our step. A promise to guide us through the dimly lit hallways that echo with guttural coughs.
It is the 18th of September.
Henry’s condition has worsened. Martha is always by his side now, leaving only for food and water. She sleeps on a cot by the window. We tell her to leave the hospital; it is not safe here. She never listens. I don’t blame her, but every minute tempts death.
David takes me aside. He wants to talk about Henry.
“He’ll pull through,” David says. “His fever is stable, and he has strength in his bones.”
But it is not Henry he worries for.
Martha has a damp, faded look in her eyes. The bags puff underneath. She watches her son and sniffles, and she dabs the tears away with her handkerchief. That same damned handkerchief. I know she is dead long before she ever starts to cough. The fever takes her quickly.
Martha lasts for six more hours before she collapses. I am there to carry her away on a stretcher. We take her to the cafeteria; all the other rooms have been filled. She joins the makeshift ward, nothing more than an open cot on cold tile. We give her whiskey to numb the pain.
She can’t swallow the whiskey. Her throat is too swollen.
“His father,” she says. “Field surgeon. Deployed. Near Sallaumines. Infantry.”
The words come one-by-one between each ragged breath. She reaches out towards me, fingers curling, pawing helplessly in the air. I let her grasp my shoulder. When she coughs, she bucks, and her hand slips. She cannot hold on. I understand the look in her eyes, the feeling of helplessness, knowing there is nothing more she can do, knowing there is nothing more she can say, knowing she will never see her son again.
The end is not peaceful.
Her hands are warm but unmoving. I drape the white sheet across her purple twisted face. Henry is alone with no mother to hold him. No one to wipe the spittle from his mouth. No one to lie and promise that everything will get better. If I had any tears left to cry, I would weep for him.
Later, David finds me outside, sitting beside the white marble pillars of the main entrance. He rubs his hands together. The air is cold and damp, but my lit cigarette wards away the chill. My knuckles are raw from punching the marble. The pain helps me forget that I am afraid.
I light David a fresh cigarette.
He sits on the steps next to me. “I don’t smoke.”
“It’s bad for the lungs,” he remarks, taking a long drag himself.
He crushes the cigarette beneath his boot as his eyes settle on my clenched fists. Gently, he takes my hands, running his fingers across the bruises. He says nothing. He doesn’t need to say anything, because what more is there to say? Death always wins.
David starts softly. “You can’t blame yourself.”
“Maybe I blame you,” I say. I do not mean it.
David closes his eyes. I know the words cut deep. He struggles to keep his voice steady. “The orphanage sent a telegram. They’re too scared of infection. They won’t take Henry.”
“Then… then I’ll take him.”
David raises his eyebrows. “Are you sure?”
“He needs a family,” I say, trying hard to convince myself that I am doing this for Henry, and not for me. “Now more than ever. I can look after him.”
David lets out a long sigh. “You don’t have to do this.”
“No, I want this. And you’ll be there, won’t you? You’ll take us both to Venice?”
He kisses my hand softly. “As long as you’ll dance with me.”
“I’ve already bought a phonograph.”
I take Henry home on the 20th of September. My nursery is small. Dust covers the crib, and the hand-woven blanket, and the black-and-white photograph that I will never, ever take down. I used to stare at the photo, run my fingers across the smile on Adam’s face, promising him that I would keep fighting. I would care for them—the sick children—in his memory. I pray the angels in Heaven hold Adam close and sing to him every night. And maybe, just maybe, If I can save Henry, the angels will let me find my way back to him.
It is the 21st of September.
Henry’s condition is improving. He is strong enough to stand and talk. When he does, he asks for his mother. He asks for his father. He cries, and I don’t yet have the heart to tell him that they are both gone and never coming back.
“They’re out there fighting for you, Henry,” I manage to say. “You brave little soldier.”
It is the 23rd of September when Henry’s fever finally breaks.
For the first time since the epidemic crossed the hospital threshold, I sleep without nightmares. My war is over. In the morning, when I listen at the door to his room, there is no more coughing, no more pained cries. Only peace. A peace that I pray will last a lifetime.
When I arrive at the hospital, I rush to tell David the good news. I mean to kiss him. I mean to twine his fingers with mine and dance the foxtrot to a crackly Scott Joplin on the phonograph.
He is nowhere.
The other staff are so quiet.
They point me towards the room at the end of the hall, the room that smells of saline and alcohol. Chills run down my spine. The air is so thick and heavy. My footsteps echo so loud on the tile. I stop at the curtain, because I don’t need to see who lies behind. I already know.
David wears the face of death. Despite this, he looks calm as ever, knowing only the vaguest possible sense of injustice. The fever has already taken hold. He smells of sweat. Of all the things he could say to me, he manages this—
“I’m not afraid,” he says, “Because you’re here with me.”
Soon the coughing fits begin.
Blood comes gurgling up from David’s lungs. I cannot bear to watch and yet I do, because I love him. I think I have always loved him, and I think he has always known this. I see in his bloodshot eyes what he wants for us all: A glimmer of hope, a sense of peace, contentment. He reaches out a gloved hand.
I hold his hand in mine.
Death takes him quickly, and for that I am grateful.
The year is 1939.
Henry asks me to sit at the dining room table. He is home early, still wearing his stethoscope like a mantle, still smelling of antiseptic. A would-be surgeon. He shows me the headline of the Boston Globe, and he looks up with pleading eyes, and I know in my heart that I may never see him again.
I am so proud of him.
“Go,” I say to him. “They’ll need good men like you.”
War. Sickness. Death. I want to shelter him from this wickedness, but I’ve long since found and kept my peace. Maybe, somewhere three thousand miles from Boston, Henry will find his.
Because I know what Henry must soon learn himself: The comforting power of a hand, fingers twined against the darkness. Side-by-side we face our terrors. And we will make it through together if we just hold on.Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in