IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Healing on the Sabbath
Sunday, April 26, 2708, continued
When we return to the infirmary, new patients fill every possible space and total strangers carry in more. At first I think there must've been another skirmish; then I smell the gangrene in the air. These wounds have all gone unattended for far too long.
"Move some of them into the adjoining classes," I say. "Give us room to take care of everybody." Friends of the wounded have been walking on the mats, with no floor to step on between, to fetch water and bedpans and everything else, till muddy footprints mark every sheet and patients squirm over the grit that's rolled under them.
"Marduk, don't even try to lift that child!" His face turns gray just shifting into position to help. "You lay right back down if you want any hope of ever fathering children." God forbid--maybe I should let him help after all. He falls back on the mat with a groan, muttering, "But they're all so much worse off than me!" Then, giving me an acid glare, he says, "They need me, you sow--it's your own damn fault you don't have my strength to help you." Then he punches his pillow weakly in frustration, not up to any further violence. (She needed me, once. She used to wake up every night, crying over nightmares, glad to have me there beside her. When did she stop needing me?)
"Rashid, triage the newcomers.” (When did I become good for nothing but killing on her orders?) “Malcolm, pick out a room to convert to a surgery unit--I don't think we can avoid amputation in some of these cases, and we'll need all the nitrous you've got.” (When did she start to think that I needed her?) “Makhliya and Imad will help you sterilize the setting as much as possible--they know the routine." People do my bidding before I have time to think, "Hey, wait a minute--days ago I wore a chain in slavery, and now suddenly they take orders from me, just like that?"
But I do think it, now, as I move from bed to bed helping with the triage, Rashid and me working different rooms. "Tell Khouri to get some clean sheets in here. And fetch Aron--he's been wanting something to do, he might as well learn nursing." The kid gets around on his knees, anyway--what could suit him better?
Cyran finally arrives, so at last I can ask hir, "What the devil's going on? Where'd all these people come from?"
E shakes hir head. "The rumor mill, apparently. Word got out that I plan to shut down our operation here as too big, so they wanted to touch base one last time."
"All at once," I groan, "making our presence more conspicuous than ever."
E studies our suddenly-expanded infirmary, saying, "Not bad. Short notice and you rose to the challenge admirably. I understand you took charge while the others stood there gaping in shock."
"That's what I'm trained to do," I say as I help Aron change a sheet. "Rise to challenges--easy Aron! You don't want to roll the patient over too roughly, no matter how much of a hurry you're in--you'll reopen the wounds. Now let's get the other side." I look up at Cyran. "Frankly, that's about all I know how to do; when life gets too peaceful I have trouble keeping up with my laundry."
E chuckles. "I've been meaning to talk to you about that. But after you settle everyone in here, could you help organize things at the library? We've got ten times as many healthy bodies to quarter."
"You give whatever orders you want, Cyran, but do I look like I'm in any danger of finding time on my hands?"
E shook hir head with a grin. "You think I meant it?"
Malcolm's head pops in. "We're as set up as we'll ever be. You got the most critical patients ready, yet?"
"No acute bleeders," I reply, "so we'll start with all the gangrene cases who're running fevers. We've lined them up in the room next door to your surgery."
When he pokes his head in there he winces at the smell, then his face firms to determination. "Scrub up, Deirdre. I don't have what it takes to put anyone out completely, so I'll need a strong pair of arms to hold them in place."
Riiiight. I glance down at my bandages. "Got it," I say. I roll up my hair and stuff it into one of the linen moll-caps that Makhliya made for the purpose, while Imad fetches the water. "Rashid,” I call out, “are we almost out of greensoap? No, here, there's more." I work up a thin lather, telling Malcolm, "I'm afraid we can't afford anything better than veterinary-grade antiseptics."
"That's nothing new to me,” he says, scrubbing up beside me, unable to avoid crowding me. “You got a butcher-saw we can sterilize?"
"Of course--and a dead-sharp cleaver, too. That's sometimes quicker, especially with child-sized bones. You’ve got to strike hard and heavy, though; otherwise you cause splinters and fractures the whole way up and you can lose an entire limb that way." His face turns white.
I discard my old clothes and don the boiled ones saved up for such occasions, in bags hanging in the cloakroom. I try not to look as he strips, too, but curiosity can’t resist a peek at just how all that fat distributes, too quick for him to notice, before I firmly turn my back. I have never seen such enormous hams in my life! "You ever do an amputation before?"
"No. Not unless you count pulling teeth." I turn to face him, properly attired now in the tentlike smock that Makhliya made for him days ago, out of sheets. "But I'm willing to try." His clenched jaw makes his soft face look hard.
"I won't call it easy," I say as I pull on gloves, while Makhliya ties a kerchief over my nose and mouth. "But I think maybe you've done harder things in your life."
He nods slowly, reaching for his own gloves. "I wonder how many limbs we could save if we actually knew what we were doing?"
"Don't even think about that." Now Makhliya ties another on Malcolm, making him look like a bandit in a bonnet and a muumuu. "It's our job to do the best we can--if nobody more qualified volunteers to help, it's not on our heads." Makhliya does the honors for Rashid, who has just rushed in quickly, to soap up and don gloves and boiled clothing of his own.
I go next door to pick up a boy that Aron has prepared in sterile garments; As I carry him back, he shivers in my arms despite the heat. Malcolm, Rashid, our patient and I then enter a room so sharp with antiseptic that it makes my eyes sting. Mahkliya and Aron will take care of the ones who don’t need immediate surgery, and Imad will sterilize more surgery garb and bandages.
Malcolm says, "Sit over here, Deirdre. Hold him in your lap. It's okay; I'm used to working this way. You'll have more control holding him in place, and he'll have the comfort of human touch.” Ouch. “Yeah--like that." He puts the nose-gear onto the kid's face and starts the nitrous/oxygen mix. I can feel the fear-taut muscles relax degree by degree in my sore arms.
(The slant feels weird, leaned back in the tall woman's lap, but then everything has gone pleasantly, distantly weird. At first I feel like I can't breathe right with that thing over my nose, but she presses fingers over my lips to keep me from breathing through my mouth. Then my hands and feet go all tingly in a nice sort of way and I don't care whether I can breathe or not, but my chest rises and falls, rises and falls, so I figure I must be all right. I am all right. I lie safe and warm in a kind woman's arms.)
Using the forceps from his own supply of tools, Malcolm delicately unwraps the fetid bandages around the right hand. (She strokes my hair from my face as the fat man lifts my hand, the bad hand, the one that throbs even through the tingles.) His eyes widen when he sees the mangled ruin--with a distinctive grid pattern stamped into the flesh.
Malcolm looks at me and says, "We'll have to tell Cyran. They already know that we've concentrated at one base."
Of course. Why else would they send tanks against us?
"Lidocaine," he says, and Rashid makes the injection, while I hold the limp little boy.
(Now...no! She betrayed me! The Jenji kid plunges a needle in bone-deep, pain-deep, chasm of hell deep, but she grips me like stone so that I can't escape, all the while pressing her cheek to my head and murmuring, "Shhhhh, shhhhh," like she loves me. I struggle feebly, the pain far away, actually, and soon gone, soon even the old throbbing ache goes away as I feel my hand swell up like a ball, but I glance that way and it's the same size it ever was.)
Rashid paints the boy’s entire hand and forearm with Akhbar’s Ox Ointment. “Before you do any sawing or cleaving,” he tells Malcolm, “see if you can cut a flap, anchored to the sound part, to fold over the stump. They heal better with their own skin, if we can manage it.” Then he ties on the tourniquet.
(The tightness hurts a bit, but I don’t care. I can’t feel the ache that had taken over my life, for days on end, and that’s a big improvement.
I settle back against the woman's breast and turn my head, not really wanting to see what the fat man does to my hand. I feel the grace of Heaven drift down onto me as I breathe slowly, deeply, in and out and in and out.
Arturo forgives me, I know. I can feel his forgiveness waft down from heaven like the gentle breeze from an angel's wing, like the sparkle that courses through me. My little brother knows how I tried to pull him from the path of the tank, how my grip wouldn't let go of him no matter what, just like I promised. He forgives me for all the times I called him boogerface or beaglebreath, or any old mean thing I could think of. I bear my good intention stamped upon my flesh. Arturo's just fine, now, and maybe I'll be, soon.)
"Praise God," Malcolm says. "I think I can save his hand, after all."
(I feel my arm lift as he turns it this way and that, but I can't feel the hand itself anymore and who needs to, anyway?) "Part of it, at least, the thumb and first finger--he'll have a grip." (Have a grip. I don't want a grip on anything right now. Just let me float away, not attached to anything, not even attached to fingers. Let me, for a little while, rest...)
* * *
Shaking with exhaustion, all my cuts burning, I make my way out into the fresh night air. Some day of rest! Romulo walks by and I bum a cigarette off him--any pick-me-up can only do me good right now.
Fourteen operations. We had to do fourteen operations back to back, quick and dirty but still a labor, every one. Some kids we put on the table, some I held in my lap, depending on the injury and the patient. My spine feels halfway broken through from holding them.
I amble over to a bench, get off my feet and lean my sore back against a pillar, while I smoke and listen to the crickets sing. In the distance I hear shoveling as they bury body-parts in the orchard--too foul to compost for the vegetables, but gangrene won't infect the apricots. I smoke to burn the smell of it away. I wonder who might pick our apricots after us?
I can hear the cemetery, too, where Father wails some inchoate chant over those who didn't pass triage. He'll bury more than them in the days to come, I know. I surprise myself with a yawn, made callous by sheer weariness. We did what we could.