The sunlight shone through the window behind me, hitting my back. It was one of the only windows in the hospital tent, but the sunlight always seemed to be pointed at me. The only breeze came from the flap at the front of the tent, which was made of strong material. For fear of stray bullets, we didn’t keep our patients near the opening.
It was 1943, my second year here at this battlefield in Russia. I worked as a nurse for the injured soldiers. There were three other nurses working with me in this tent. We were all in our mid twenties, fresh out of medical school from various schools around America.
We worked to the noise of the gunshots outside, and when they ceased, we cautiously ran for more people. We only took injured people, to try to heal their wounds or to ease their pain. Sometimes there was nothing we could do to help them, so we gave them good doses of our strong pain medicine to help them leave the world. If any of our patients perished, we would fix them up and they would remain on their cots until the people who collected the casualties came around.
We probably had about sixty cots in the tent, and there was generally about fifty patients, which left ten beds unoccupied. Our patients were grateful for our work, I’m sure, but they didn’t have the best way of showing it. The yelled at us and called us vile names and I had to use all the strength I had to ignore them. I couldn’t blame them. They were scared and in pain and they needed a way to make it better.
One of the younger, nicer patients called me over. “Ana,” he said softly. “My leg is numb.”
I turned and walked toward him. His leg was stretched out and his bullet hole looked bad, but not as bad as it did the night before. I looked up at him and smiled. “Well, your bullet hole seems to be healing, but I will put some ointment on it to try and help it heal faster.” I leaned down beneath his cot and pulled out a tube of white ointment. I twisted the cap off and squeezed a glob about as big as my thumbnail into the wound. George’s face contorted and he moaned. I wrapped a beige bandage tightly around his thigh and propped his leg out on a pillow. He thanked me weakly as I walked away.
I don’t remember much after that point. The gunshots grew fainter from that point on, but they never stopped, which means we couldn’t go outside. I could smell something, something in the air, but my brain was too fuzzy to think of what it could be. It was getting rather dark outside, and I remember one of the other nurses asking me to fasten the flaps down for the night. I stumbled toward the opening at the front and fastened the hooks to the ground. The last thing I remember was falling.
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The intense pain in my head makes me open my eyes. The bright sunlight that peeks under the tent blinds me and I blink repeatedly until I can see. My arm is under my hip and my skirt does nothing to soften the sharp pain my hip bone leaves in my forearm. It is difficult to make myself sit up. All of my limbs are stiff and hard to move, like they are filled with lead. There is a strong smell of gas in the air and though it gets better every minute, it is hard to breathe. My arms burn as I push myself into a sitting position. The earth swoops beneath me, and I almost pass out again.
I force myself to stand, and as I do I stumble towards George’s cot. It is closest to the flap opening, because he constantly needs the air. I hit the cot hard and lean against it.
“HelloGeorgehowareyoufeelingtoday?” My voice is slurred and I laugh because it sounds so funny.
But I stop laughing when he doesn’t answer. He is lying on his side, and his eyes are closed so he must be sleeping. “Come on, silly! Wake up! It’s time for your therapy,” I say. He doesn’t respond. “George!” I shout. I reach my hand out but I recoil when my hands first touch his face.
My fingertips are ice cold from where I touched his cheek.
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George doesn't have a pulse. His heart isn't beating, he isn't breathing, and he is cold. It sinks in that George is dead just as I look up from his cot to see the rest of the tent.
The other cots that were occupied by healing people a few hours ago have lifeless, still people lying in them now. They are all in different positions on their cots, but there is no denying that they are all dead. I can’t see any of the other nurses I worked with, and I hope that they are alive.
I need to clear my head, but the front flap is not an option for me. The gunshots are loud and clear, so I walk slowly to the back, where we have the supply area that is free from the fighting. I stop and lean down to remove the flap from the hooks in the ground. I roll it up, fastening the flap at the top. The extra breeze is refreshing, and I stand there for a while clearing my mind. I stay there until I am not loopy anymore, so now I can speak sentences clearly and walk in straight lines. I turn around, leaving the flap open, and walk away, weaving in between rows of beds. I skim over the bodies, looking for the cause of their death, and my foot catches on something. I fall to the ground and land on my stomach, my face hitting the ground hard. I groan and rub my nose. I look behind me to see what I fell on, and I scream a little when I see that it’s another person. This time, it’s one of my fellow nurses. She’s lying on her back with her eyes open, and there’s a little blood on the ground next to her head. From falling, I suppose.
If I were to make an educated guess, I would say that I am the only living person in a tent full of dead people.
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I roll George onto his back. His leg has no need to be propped up anymore, so I remove the pillow underneath it. His head rolls to the side as I do so, and I set it straight. He has a layer of stubble on his chin and it tickles my palms. I take no notice to the temperature of his skin. It is time I get used to it.
I don’t bother removing the bandage from his leg. I roll his pant leg down to his ankle, which covers it good enough. There’s a little bulge, but if you don’t look too closely no one will notice.
His jacket has tears up and down his left sleeve, and his scratches and bruises are visible through them. I don’t bother trying to sew his sleeve together. I just button his jacket in the front.
I move from cot to cot, buttoning jackets and bandaging the wounds that had been bleeding just hours ago. I make the soldiers look as professional as possible, so when they arrive home to their families they won't look like a mess.
As soon as I finish the first row, I move on to the next row of cots. The first person I come upon is an older looking man, with a good sized beard but not so many wrinkles. I didn't work with him unless he was in dire need, so I don't know his name. He is on his side, in the fetal position with his hands clenched. His hands are difficult to pry open, but when I do a paper falls into my palm. It is wrinkled and rough, but it opens easily.
My wound is healing very quickly. They expect that I shall be able to use my arm again, just like always. The nurse that works with me reminds me of you. She is a very kind person, and is selfless and devoted to helping others.
Russia is a beautiful place, most of the time. Sometimes the thought of being here any longer makes me crazy, but most of the time I am okay. It is warm here and there are a lot of trees. But everything has scars from the fighting.
Sometimes I get homesick, but your picture reminds me that it's going to be okay. I miss you deeply every day and night. I will be home soon, and I will be ever glad when I am.
Give my love to the children. I love you, dearest one, and I will see you soon.
I feel the warm tears welling up in my eyes. I blink them away. This man, Jackson, is a father and a husband and he was healing. He was going to go home soon.
My hand shake as I set him straight on the bed. It takes effort to get him out of the fetal position, but the death grip on the letter was harder.
There isn’t really anything for me to do with him, besides removing his sling and rolling down his sleeve. He is very clean and tidy, unlike some of the other bodies. A couple of them had dried blood trails down some part of their body or had scratches on their face. No family likes to see their fallen soldier look as though he was only half healed, so I took the time and care to clean them up.
Whenever I come upon one of the nurses lying on the ground, I shove my arms beneath them and hoist them up onto the cots. They are not injured, so there is nothing I can do for their appearance.
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There are no more bodies left to fix. If I stand by the flap and turn around, I see rows of warriors, in their camouflage military jackets, all lying on their backs.
There is nothing more for me to do. The gunshots have not ceased. The injured soldiers are probably dying outside, but I promised my family that I would not put my life on the line.
My eyes start to droop. I have not slept in a long while, and I think that after my hard work I deserve some sleep.
I lay down on one of the empty cots. It is hard to find a comfortable position. My skirt is very puffy and the only time I can stand to wear it is when I am upright and walking around. But I don’t have time to take it off before I fall asleep.
I wake to dead silence.
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I don’t believe that they stopped. Sure, it’s a possibility, but after two years here, it feels like this war will never end. That the world will forever be in battle and that I will be here until I die. I don’t think that I will ever believe it if they stop, even if they do for real.
Either way, there are probably injured people out there, dying and in need of my help. So I clear the cots, one by one. I lay the bodies down in the corner of the tent where we kept our essential supplies, such as food and water.
All of the men are very heavy. Some are heavy enough that I fall beneath their weight, but somehow I manage to get all of them out of the way.
Our stretchers lean up against the wall of the tent; we have about 10 of them. They are made of wood poles with canvas stretched between them. They are meant for two people to lift, but I can make them work with just one. I pull a couple of them down, and lay them down by the flap. It is still attached to the ground, as I made sure of just before I blacked out. I unhook it and let it open. The breeze hits me like a truck and I am glad for it. But as I look up and see the dead and injured from the battle, I decide that it is against my duty as a nurse to enjoy it any longer.
I run carefully along the bloodstained grass. I come upon an injured man groaning on the ground. I try to not touch the blood running down his face and arm, but it’s difficult to get him onto the stretcher without doing so. I grab him underneath his arms and he screams through his teeth. The blood is warm and slippery and makes him difficult to get a grip on. I push on his feet. They are the one part of him that is uninjured, so I push with all my might until his entire body is on the stretcher. He turns his head a bit, and the blood on his face adds a new stain to the canvas.
I pull the stretcher back up to the tent. I don’t bother putting him onto a cot. I just push him into the tent and away from the flaps. I run out of the tent pulling a new stretcher.
I hear a rustling in a tree as I walk past it. It’s probably just a squirrel, but my war reflexes tell me to look up. And when I do, I see a the end of a revolver peeking out through the curtain of leaves, pointed at me. Then everything goes white, and then there is nothing at all.