o sef w a s b ei ng d i f fi cu l t; he wanted Kate to stay. After marking his temperature, she let the chart fall against the brass bed frame and tucked her cold fingers under her smock. “There are only a few patients here,” she said, “but I’m afraid I can’t read to you. You’re forgetting I have others to care for in isolation.” Josef smiled and patted the bed. “Sit here and tell me about them, Nurse Zweig.” She sighed, her exasperation both mock and real. He was a child, really, and his youthful enthusiasm was infectious, but it was late and she was tired and he, even more than she, needed sleep. She had come only to check on him and to change his bandages. “Father Thomas is on night duty. Perhaps he can read to you.” “Very funny.” Josef ’s breath smoked in the frigid air. “Whistle, perhaps, but not read. Now come closer.” She did, because she had to, and he dropped his head. “Do you see?” In the lamplight his ghastly purple wound looked infected. A shell splinter had pierced his helmet and ripped a furrow across his skull, tearing away skin and muscle and bone, and now the exposed brain pulsed with the beating of his heart. “Look closely,” he said. “You’ll see an image of a beautiful nurse. My own personal stigmata! You’re all I’ve been thinking about this evening. And if I could see your brain, I’m sure I’d see an image of me.” She stilled his heavy head with her palm and raised the lamp, scrutinizing the throbbing brain before bending to sniff it. Nothing, save perhaps a faint lingering odor of rancid lamp oil, but no infec3


tion; she realized she’d been holding her breath only when she felt herself exhale. “I’ve told you.” She lowered the lamp to the bedside table. “All I can see is healthy new pink skin and a few words about President Wilson.” Which was the truth, or a version of it. Josef had arrived with his wound dressed in newspaper held in place by a boot string, and some of the reversed newsprint still showed on the uncovered tissue. So far, the wound’s only adverse effect had been a series of nighttime seizures, pronounced enough to rattle his bed, and she was glad that they’d stopped, that she no longer had to restrain him, though the raw wound on one so young distressed her. But the dura was slowly regenerating, and soon he would be ready for the insertion of a metal plate. She changed the bandage on his arm, using a crisp new Austrian army armband in place of the old linens, and scolded him again for his foolishness. Josef and another boy, hearing a shell fly over their trench and explode, had argued over how far away it was. The other boy had said ten meters, Josef thirty, and Josef had decided to pace it off. The second shell came over while he was measuring. “I was right, though,” Josef said, smiling, as Kate pinned the brassard tightly above his biceps. “I’d got to twenty-two before the second one hit. And the greater fool was Krilnik. He stayed behind and was hit by the mortar. I scraped him up with a spoon and buried him in a tin pot.” The brassard’s imperial black eagles flinched when Josef clenched his fist. He watched them and said, “Stupid Pole.” “I thought you were a Pole,” Kate said. “Yes, of course. But a Lithuanian Pole.” “Ah, I see. I hadn’t realized there was such a difference.” “You needn’t play dumb with me,” Josef said. “All the world knows there is.” It pained her to think of the future he would inherit, even more to imagine the future he and other young soldiers — creations of the recent past — might construct. The tin roof vibrated in the buffeting wind, moaning like a violin, and her eye followed the noise down the length of the ward. Rubber hot-water bottles hung from the rafters, and copper pots boiled 4

atop the brick stoves. Once again they had a small supply of coal for the stoves — like the armbands, it was an unexpected gift from an unexplained source — and on a brutally cold night like tonight that would keep the patients alive, but the steam was melting ice that had formed on the ceiling and she would have to push beds aside to keep patients dry. She was about to go when Josef pinched her sleeve between his bony fingers, not wanting to be left alone. She couldn’t blame him; a line of folded-over mattresses and piled clean linens stretched into the darkness beyond the few other patients on the ward, all of whom were sleeping, and the lack of human voices made their presence seem an oddity, but she couldn’t stay; she was tired, she had other patients to attend to, she was afraid and didn’t want her fear to show. The approach of Father Thomas spared her the embarrassment of pulling her arm free. Their other orderlies had either deserted or been moved north and west during the past months to staff new British hospitals along the fluctuating front — victors in the recent war, the English now told the German army and its field hospitals what to do — but Father Thomas had argued that his throat wound should keep him behind. Not from fear, Kate knew; it was because he didn’t want to abandon them. A hinged metal pipe inserted into a hole cut in his throat, held in place by surgical tape and a small paper disk, its opening covered by a square of sterile muslin; he would have looked ecclesiastical with all that white at his throat even if he hadn’t been a priest. He entered the circle of lamplight, air clicking and whistling through the pipe as he walked, and gestured that he’d watch over Josef and move the beds. “Thank you,” Kate said. No, he signed, thank you. She looked puzzled and he made the sign for a plate, breathing deeply in appreciation, his pipe whistling. “Ah, yes,” she said, understanding. Supper. “The eggs were good, weren’t they?” She decided not to tell him that, lacking lard, she’d had to cook them in Vaseline. Their newfound supplies, though bountiful, were a bizarre mixture of the practical and the useless. As he bent over, his crucifix swung free, nearly striking Josef ’s 5

chin, and Josef swatted it away. “Don’t bless me, Father,” he said, “I haven’t sinned.” He smiled with youthful pleasure at his joke. Here, then, Father Thomas signed, removing his crucifix and giving it to Josef. Take this. “What? Why?” Kate translated his signs: Those who feel they’re without sin are in the greatest danger of all. Josef made a face but slipped the chain around his neck too quickly to be anything but pleased. Father Thomas folded his hand over Josef ’s, and Kate squeezed Josef ’s other hand before dropping it and hurrying off, briefly elated by her certainty that Josef would be fine. But her own echoing footsteps down the long empty ward discomfited her. At least during the war she’d known what to hope for, and her fears, though deep, had been mostly dormant. They’d waited years for peace, and when it had finally come they’d celebrated even in defeat — a last saved bottle of plum brandy — and yet now they were waiting once again, though she couldn’t say with any certainty for what. Even before the Armistice, they’d lived through outbreaks of civil war in Germany, Russia, Poland, and the Ukraine, and in the months since they’d moved their hospital a half a dozen times to either escape from or assist in a series of seemingly never-ending engagements, all at the behest of their new English masters; Germans and Poles versus Russians, Germans against bandits, Germans versus Poles, Poles and Germans versus Russians again, White Russians against Ukrainians. Now the British were standing aside while the White Russians battled the Red ones, both armies appearing in an area that for five hundred years had been Prussian but that, rumor had it, would soon be Polish. President Wilson and his Fourteen Points; she supposed she should be grateful. But as she made her way to the sterilization room she found herself almost wishing for war. If over time the war’s aims had grown obscure, its sides had always been clear, and though it seemed blasphemous to think so, she missed that clarity, that sense of impermeable boundaries. Now, with each switch of engagements, their loyalties grew more tangled, their duties less obvious, their danger greater. 6

She pushed open the squeaking door, ashamed that she could wish such a thing, but even so wishing it still. The scalpels and lancets, the saws and clamps and retractors clinked in the boiling water, and Kate stood entranced before the kettle, hypnotized by the chains of tiny rising bubbles, her chest and stomach warm, her sore legs and sorer back freezing. It had been weeks since they’d had sufficient coal to properly sterilize their instruments; that they had it now was troubling. For days refugees had trudged westward through Wilno, the easternmost outpost of the former German empire, ahead of distant ongoing battles: peasant families and single elderly men and women and stray children, trailing their overloaded carts and toboggans, dumping clothes and dinner plates and leather-bound books, bottles of perfume and spare shoes, occasionally even jewelry; the snowy roads were difficult to pass. No dead infants this time, which was a relief. The civilians were followed by clumps of beaten soldiers and the rare dispirited officer, resplendent in tattered red or blue; then, yesterday, by a few last lame stragglers and the milk carrier’s blind nag, spooked and unattended. Exactly where the fighting was remained unclear; somewhere in the vast east there were disturbances. They had no telephones, their newspapers were dated, they’d received no orders for nearly a month, and the straggling soldiers had been a motley assortment of Poles, Galicians, and Lithuanians, though the refugees — when Kate could get them to talk — had spoken of Russians, both White and Red. Neither she nor Horst nor Father Thomas could make sense of it. Standing in the hospital doorway, watching the near-silent procession pass — stamping feet, creaking wheels, and an occasional death groan the only sounds in an otherwise unworldly hush — she’d given to the dispirited beggars all they could afford: socks and wraps and aspirin tablets, hoping those would tide them over until they found shelter and food. Of their own dwindling, meager stores of smoked meat and dried beans, they could spare nothing. She doubted it mattered. The people seemed more shadowlike than human, a procession of the soon-to-be dead, and what really scared her was what might follow in their wake, the first sign of which had been a pack of 7

mangy dogs eyeing her as she stood outside the hospital. Had a soldier not shot one, she was certain they all would have attacked. Then, late this afternoon, just before daylight faded, three ambulances had rumbled into the hospital compound. Though she’d feared they foretold new arrivals for whom there’d be little food and less medicine, Kate had gone to meet them, yet before she was halfway there, the drivers had run to the hospital’s truck, climbed in, and taken off. She had no idea who they were or where they’d gone or what had caused their panic, or why, if they were fleeing, they’d fled their own rides. The ambulances themselves were equally mysterious. One held eggs and the brassards, ink and coal and a few yards of fresh white muslin, which she’d immediately been grateful for and scooped up; the second held stacks of small wooden boxes and, of all things, a piano; and the third a jumbled load of larger crates covered with Cyrillic writing. She couldn’t read it and didn’t have time to pry the boxes open, as surgery was scheduled and she had wounded to care for, so she’d hurried back to tell Horst of their strange luck, feeling a mixture of joy at their newfound riches and fear that the riches were tainted. Now, warming herself in the sterilization room, knowing that she should look into the crates and boxes, she felt dread. Their contents might be a blessing, but their appearance could only be a curse; someone had almost certainly stolen them, which meant that someone else would just as certainly be searching them out. She removed the last of the instruments from the water, steaming in the frozen air, and patted them dry on piled muslin beside two sterilized pipes for Father Thomas’s throat. The moon was up, fat and low and orange, rising toward swift-moving clouds, the ambulances gleaming beneath it. Beyond them the unplanted fields were deep with snow and dimpled with rifle pits, a skeleton showing in one. Months before she and Horst and the rest of the hospital had arrived, there had been a skirmish in an abrupt, short-lived civil war; in its aftermath the retreating Polish Reds had left behind their dead, and though the local peasants had buried all the others they’d refused to touch this one because of the sacrilegious nature of his death: he’d cut down a roadside cross to make a fire, which had spread to his coat, and, panicked at finding himself on fire, he’d fallen 8

on his own bayonet. The peasants maintained it was a sign from God. She’d seen too much these past years to credit a selectively vengeful God, but it was no use telling herself she didn’t believe in superstitions; others’ certainty in them proved stronger than her doubts. As often as she’d started out to the cold cabbage field to bury him, bayonet glinting at his atlas vertebra, she’d always turned back on some pretext or another: instruments to clean, patients to attend to, the necessity of sleep, a fear that the frozen ground would be unyielding. Tonight she turned away once more, grateful for the rare warmth of the ward, not liking to be out on a night when the village was deserted except for his silent watching form; he and the abandoned ambulances would be easier to face in the morning, when the ambulances at least might be of use. Horst sat leaning over the official army forms, the paper seeming to glow in the lamplight. Kate set his bag of surgical instruments by a pile of red-leather-bound books she’d recovered from beside the refugee track and wrinkled her nose at the rancid air. “Sorry,” he said, and nodded at a bottle on the stove. “Scorched ink. I let it freeze. We’d been so long without it that I forgot, and then I overcooked it. How’s our miracle boy?” “Fine.” She laughed, recalling Josef. “Flirtatious.” “Ah, yes. The romance with the nurse. You’re the epitome of every boy’s dream, beautiful, charming, and uniformed.” His blistered lips shone with oil. She bent over his shoulder and locked her hands across his chest. His blond hair smelled clean, a way it hadn’t in weeks. The coal, again. She’d meant to bathe herself but was too tired; she hoped he wouldn’t mind. “Was the loose nurse your dream?” “Never. You forget I’d seen them around my father, which inspired fear, not desire. Too handy with a scalpel and an enema for my tastes.” “And yet you married one.” “The triumph of hope over experience. And as you well know, I innocently fell in love with you long before you were a nurse. By the time you became my loose one, we were already married.” He 9

squeezed her hands. “Tomorrow, I’ll give Josef the last thing he needs.” “What’s that?” “More newspaper.” He tapped the Polish ones beside him, which had also come with the ambulances. “It’s the only way to educate him, letting it soak into his brain.” “Horst!” she said, feigning shock. “And he’s a lucky boy. The article he came with was about Wilson. What if it had been a review of some dreary play?” He put the papers aside and stood. Now was the time, while his mood was still light. She didn’t share Horst’s stubborn German fidelity to the abstract concept of duty, especially since she wasn’t sure to whom they were still to be dutiful; Germany as they’d known it had ceased to exist, the army as well. She breathed deeply and asked — again, though for the first time in a week — if they shouldn’t leave. “We can use the ambulances,” she said. “Load the few remaining wounded onto them in the morning and drive west. One of us to each ambulance. You, Father Thomas, and I. We’re already packed and ready to move and we have almost nothing here to detain us.” She’d revealed her plan in a rush, faster than she’d intended, trying to counter all possible objections before he even voiced them, as if she might overwhelm his doubts with a tidal wave of words; Horst shuffled the papers together before he spoke, letting the silence — his true answer — build. Then he said, “Kate,” and pulled off his glasses. “We mustn’t. At least not yet.” He sighed and massaged the bridge of his nose. “We were nearly out of supplies and now we have them. We have to treat them as the gifts they are, not squander them on a trip whose end we can’t foresee. And none of our patients would benefit from being moved. Think of the influenza cases. The jolting, the cold air — it would kill them.” His refusal didn’t surprise her. Their arrival in Wilno had been horrible, part of an ignominious retreat through the Ukraine before advancing Red armies, crossing the swollen Neman by ferry right after a regiment of cavalry, the deck filthy, wounded laid on the dung; he would not want to leave ignominiously as well. The hospital should be in good working order when he left it, and he would want 10

someone to turn over command to. Service before self. Still, she pushed on. “Please, Horst,” she said, her voice rising so that even to her it sounded shrill. “Can’t we? Those ambulances spook me.” He laughed and squeezed her hand. “Kate! Your mother never told me about gypsy blood. The best English stock, she said. Next you’ll be asking to read my palm.” When she didn’t laugh, he squeezed again. “Trust me. We’ll be fine.” “The refugees,” she said, knowing that it was a mistake, but she was desperate. “Kate.” He sat back. “Twice before, we’ve lived through waves of refugees, and both times it meant nothing. Yes?” They had, it was true. In late November the refugees fled east, away from an advancing Polish army that proved imaginary, and two weeks later another terrified group swarmed west, ahead of the fastmoving Czech legion. Though that army had proved both real and rapacious, it had also been remote, seven hundred miles away in central Russia at the time and moving east, away from them. Seeing he hadn’t convinced her, he softened his voice. “Three days, that’s all. I promise. We owe it to our soldiers who marched north to stay that long.” They had left two weeks before. “They were supposed to be back yesterday.” “Yes.” He shrugged. “It’s wartime. Better to wait for the soldiers to be sure the way is safe, that no other patients need us. Let’s give them three more days. If they haven’t returned by then, we’ll go. I promise.” He clapped his hands before she could reply and squared the papers on his desk. “Come,” he said. “Time for tea and a smoke! Feed that bit of English left in you, yes?” Water was boiling over a Sterno lamp in a German helmet, and two glass ventouse cups on the table were filled with tea leaves. “Let’s enjoy our newfound luxury before bed. The paperwork only multiplies if I attend to it.” The offer of tea, the boiling water, were meant to make her happy, but she was certain it was one more thing they shouldn’t have, a poi11

soned gift. The war had overturned everything: emperors and czars were gone, kingdoms and countries, millions of men; why shouldn’t what once was good now be bad? It puzzled her that such things weren’t plain to Horst, but she smiled and nodded, having argued and lost. Still dressed, Horst asked Kate if she was ready for the dark, the game they’d played since their wedding night. Even at their most exhausted, when they moved like somnambulists after hours of surgery following especially bloody battles, one or the other had always teased with this delicious moment of waiting. Tonight, wanting him beside her, Kate wished Horst would forgo it and hurry to bed, but she knew she had to play along; domestic routines were their last remaining anchor. He cracked the window and turned out the gas lamp and jumped beneath the piled blankets. She drew him close, trying to shake her chill as the windows rattled from distant cannon fire. Explosions flickered across the cloudy southern sky like heat lightning and she felt the pressure from them on the soles of her feet. “Don’t they worry you?” she asked. “Why should they?” He pulled her tightly to his chest, the scent of tea lingering on his breath. “We’ve been listening to it for months. It moves, it comes closer, it goes away. We’ll be fine.” Rapid pulse, shallow breathing; he didn’t seem to believe his assurances either, though she said nothing. What would be the point? They were going to stay. Three days, perhaps their luck would last. She wanted more than luck. Closing her eyes, she prayed for a southern wind, as the warmer air would carry the sound of the guns more clearly, allowing her to identify them, and if she knew whose guns they were, she might know better what was about to befall them.


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