Authors: Tim Bowling
Tags: #Historical, #General, #Fiction, #Literary
He looked down at the lower leg in his hand, as if his thoughts alone had severed it from a body and put it there. And yet he did not doubt the necessity of the fight to keep his country together. No, that was without question. Even so, it was wearying, unpleasant work.
He flung the leg onto a pile of limbs and heard it land with the usual splat, as if he were piling fruit. The sound sickened him anew; it was always a harsh reminder of how infrequently he could keep the wounded whole. Heavily, he turned back to the damaged body on the table and sutured the arteries, his needle pulling the silk thread tight.
“Next!” he called and waited for another wounded man to emerge from the horrified lineup.
Darkness fell at last. The battle sounds ceased, replaced with a steady, echoing lament of suffering. Lanterns bobbed in the fields as hospital stewards and stretcher-men continued to search for wounded. Anson worked with his back to a great gambrel barn, its four sloped roofs giving it a queer, giant batâlike quality whenever he turned and faced its massive bulk. If not for the powerful, comforting scent of alfalfa wafting through its hayloft window, the barn would have seemed a gruesome observer of Anson's surgeries. Instead, he used the scent of hay, faint though it was, threatening to dissolve completely in the mingled musk of chloroform, blood, and manure in which he stood, to carry him home to his grandparents' farm. There, at harvest time, many men had worked in the fields, swinging scythes.
This peaceful reverie of reflection never lasted more than a few seconds. Eventually, Anson would look up to see his half-dozen fellow surgeons bent over in the barely sufficient light of sperm-oil candles held in the unsteady hands of exhausted assistants. Sometimes he would be called over by a colleague to consult on a particularly difficult operation, but mostly the surgeons worked independently, with Josiah Rawley, the regimental surgeon, patrolling from candle to candle when he wasn't busy cutting into flesh and bone himself.
Meanwhile, out in the dark fields, the sharp cracks of pickets' rifles kept help from reaching those soldiers who had fallen in the contested ground between the armies. But without the constant shrieking and pounding of shells, the worst of the killing was over, and Anson's body responded. Several times he dashed from the operating table and relieved his bowels in the pasture, where at least the spread manure made his foul contribution less apparent. The cramps intensified as the night wore on, and the energy spent in these evacuations soon brought back his fits of violent coughing.
Once, returning to the table where an anaesthetized man with an arm fracture lay in readiness for amputation, Anson encountered Rawley, the barrel-chested career army man whose silver-grey beard and pallid skin gave him a ghostly appearance in the candle flickers.
“For heaven's sakes, Baird, don't be so dainty, man!” With a sweeping motion of one arm, he indicated the black, fetus-curled figures of the wounded nearby. “This is no time for niceties. Go in your breeches if you have to!” Then he slapped Anson on the shoulder and, with a broad smile, said, “It's always you bachelors who are so fussy. You need a good woman to take care of the manners for you.”
Though Anson was not sure how a woman could make his diarrhea any less unpleasant, he took his superior's pointâwith the ever-increasing miasma of odours (blood, shit, smoke, vomit, chloroform), no one was going to remark on his excretions.
And it was true: with each hour, more stragglers came in from the great battle, many suffering from shock and loss of blood. Some managed remarkably to reach the hospital under their own power, while others were helped in either by comrades or by one of those men deputized for the duty. As such men were mostly drawn from the ranks of shirkers or were soon needed to help out as nurses, the fresh supplies of wounded inevitably dwindled toward the early hours of the new day.
By then, the piteous cries of stranded soldiers, for water, for their mothers, or for death, decreased. Anson clutched his stomach and leaned on the operating table with his other hand. In the candlelight, his hand appeared savage, pale skin showing under the blood smears and gore; it looked as if he had cut it off and forgotten to toss it on the nearest stack of limbs. But his feet troubled him the most. They were swollen and aching, and no matter how he adjusted his weight, he could find no relief.
Then the rain began, lightly at first, sending up a gentle chorus of patters among the tree leaves and on the barn roof. But quickly the light shower became a downpour and operations had to be performed inside the barn. Now, as he sawed into bone, his shadow loomed grotesquely on the beams and stables and stacked hay. His arms, black and several times larger on the planks, moved with a creeping, spidery motion that he could hardly bear to witness. Anson knew that others noticed this as well and likely couldn't draw their eyes away. Each time he laid his amputating knife against skin, he imagined he was cutting into a huge indrawn breath.
Finally, he lost count of the amputations and of those who perished on the table before he could begin. Some had already died before they were lifted into place. Other waiting wounded were regularly pulled out of the line as corpses. In the brief pauses between operations, Anson heard the sound of digging just outside. At one point, Samuel Cossins, another assistant surgeon, appeared in the gloom and shadows with a chart in his hand. He wearily but methodically checked every wounded manâand there were hundreds sprawled in the barnâseeking their identification for possible use in his growing registry of graves. Anson almost envied him his miserable work, for at least it did not involve this relentless sawing of bone.
The rain fell softer, the thin drops tapping the boot-slopped ground outside the open barn door. With difficulty, Anson fished around in a gaping thigh wound, seeking to ligate an artery to stop the bleeding. Blood gushed over his hands. He swore beneath his breath and continued to reach with the silk thread; it was like trying to set a hook inside the belly of a fish. Finally succeeding to tie a loop around the artery with one end of the thread, he left the other end to dangle out of the wound. Later, he would be able to check to see if the loop had rotted loose by pulling on the dangling end. When the loop pulled away, if a blood clot had formed and closed the vessel, his efforts would have succeeded. If no clot had formed, there might follow an even worse, secondary hemorrhage. This had happened once to another surgeon at Bull Run, and the patient had died.
Anson wiped his bloodied hands on his apron and briefly shut his eyes.
et, si quid cessare potes, requiesce sub umbra.
huc ipsi potum uenient per prata iuuenci,
hic uiridis tenera praetexit harundine ripas
mincius, eque sacra resonant examina quercu.
He opened his eyes and looked around. There was no sacred oak in sight, nor swarms of bees humming from it; not even Virgil could have imagined himself away from such misery. Wounded men so crammed the interior of the barn that if he'd taken two steps in any direction, he would have trodden on one of them. Their shock-pale faces crowded close as mushrooms. He felt the piteous gazes of what seemed to be an entire regiment.
Near daybreak, in an effort to keep himself going, Anson walked into a corner of the barnyard where a hospital cook had a large pot boiling over a low fire. He asked for a cup of coffee and a piece of salt pork, and after drinking and eating, he decided to stretch his legs by going for a walkâhe could not remain near so many dead and dying for another minute and still keep his freshness and alertness for the surgeries. A little time to himself might translate into a cleaner, more efficient procedure with an improved chance of recovery. Perhaps a walk might even ease the aching in his feet. Quietly desperate, he swallowed two more opium pills. Then he selected a large tree on the lightening horizon as his destination, stepped cautiously around the sleeping and moaning forms on the earth, and tried to clear his mind.
From what he'd heard, the battle had been a victory, even if, from his vantage point, it didn't look like one. Some of the wounded had grumbled that they could have whipped the rebels for good if they'd been allowed to, but most felt that they'd given a fine account of themselves and that the Republic had won the day. The uneasy night, pitch-dark but for a scattering of watch fires and horrible with the cries of the wounded, had not created a victorious atmosphere, nor had the clusters of grimy-white hospital tents that had sprouted like mushrooms in and around the barnyard.
The dawn Anson walked into was just as uneasy as the night had been. He realized with a start, as he almost tripped up against a dead horse, that the battle could be resumed at any time. Soon the drummers would call the fit men to readiness. Another half-hour and there'd be enough light for the artillery to fix on their targets. Anson quickened his pace. Somehow the tree had become a necessary objectiveâit almost seemed that, if he could reach it, he could stop the battle from continuing.
He walked for several minutes over the churned earth, only cast-off knapsacks and clothing showing evidence of the battle. But soon he came among mangled bodies and tipped-over wagons, dead horses, smashed limbers, even more scattered remnants of shirts and coats. The field had the ominous stillness of a garbage pileâany movement seemed likely to release a horde of rats out of the darkly bleeding edges of the departing night. Already the stench of decay forced its way through the lingering powder smoke. Anson kept his heavy eyes on the trunk aheadâthe tree, like most others in the area, had been struck by shells, denuding it of most of its branches. But one thick branch, in particular, pointed almost straight upward, like a regimental flag. Focusing on it, Anson could almost conjure up the whiff and tang of ripe apples, almost summon up those two bucolic autumns of his youth when he'd taken his medical certificate, not far distant, in Pennsylvania. Such a long time agoÂ .Â .Â .Â another worldÂ .Â .Â .Â
Stepping suddenly into a hole, he stumbled and fell to one knee. This set off another violent fit of coughing that he could not quell. Terrified, he listened to his coughs echo through the stillness like musketry.
But nothing moved or sounded in response. Cautiously, Anson stood and then limped the remaining yards to the tree. As he leaned against the trunk, breathing in rasps, he heard something a little way to his rightâa breathing almost as laboured as his own and, in between each breath, the sound of an object being dragged. Pressed hard to the trunk, one hand clasped to his mouth, Anson peered into the grey-black air. Seconds passed. Then a strange shape emerged, the figure of a huge, deformed man dragging a smaller body, its feet bumping over the earth, its head indistinguishableâit might have been a headless corpse.
As Anson stared, poised to defend himself somehow, or to run if necessary, the giant figure stopped almost directly beside him. Slowly he turned his head. Anson stepped back. It was as if the head of the corpse had been propped on the giant's shoulder. With the two heads now pointed in his direction, Anson suddenly felt his muscles relax. Then he had another surpriseâthe giant's slightly bulbous eyes, his clear brow and full mouth, the large scrape on his cheek, were all familiar. This giant was in fact the tall, young soldier from the morning before, the one who had brought so many wounded into the aid station.
“Let me take the other man, soldier.” Anson moved around him to where the dragged figure lay motionless on the ground.
“Thank you, sir.”
The voice was calm, even-tenoredâit occurred to Anson that he had not heard the soldier speak before. But then, the din of battle did not leave much opportunity for conversation. Now the pre-dawn stillness carved attention around each word.
“The hospital's back there.” Anson pointed. “But I should just look at these men before we start.” He bent to the figure on the ground. The uniform was shredded, the bare head small. Blood caked the eyes and bridge of the nose. He was little more than a boy. And he was dead. Probably had been dead for hours. When the tall soldier placed the other man on the ground, the limp body emitted a low groan. At least this one isn't a corpse, Anson thought, and with a finger he gently probed the gunshot wound in the neck. It might be only a flesh wound, but the loss of blood could be dangerous. This man was middle-aged, stocky, rough-bearded. Anson figured he must be as heavy as an anvil.
“What's your name, private?”
The tall soldier blinked slowly, then said, “John.”
“John? What's the rest of it?”
Before the soldier could answer, a voice called sharply, “Don't move!”
Anson turned and saw two soldiersâlikely picketsâaiming their muskets at them.
“It's all right. I'm a surgeon. We're taking this wounded man to the hospital.” Anson indicated the body lying at the tall soldier's feet.
The pickets stepped closer. After staring at Anson's bloody smock, they nodded in unison and withdrew quietly into the last darkness.
“Just the one man, sir?”
Anson sighed. “The other's dead. A burial party will take care of him. Was he a comrade of yours?”
“No. But I reckoned he'd make it.”
The darkness lifted rapidly. A pink tinge appeared on the horizon of low hills. Anson knew it was foolish to remain in the open. He ordered the tall soldier to take up the wounded man and follow him. Together they crossed the debris-strewn battlefield. Just as they reached the first white cluster of hospital tents near the barnyard, a drum roll rippled through the stillness.
“Baird! Where the hell have you been?”
Rawley's face was florid, his lips pulled back, revealing his incisors. “I told you not to leave the table! This isn't your cozy little practice back home.” The blood splattered on his hands and forearms and smeared across his brow explained more than his words why he was so angry. And with a glance at the waiting wounded, Anson realized that every moment he'd been absent was a moment that couldn't be spared. He turned to tell the tall soldier where to deliver the wounded man, but both the soldier and his burden had moved on and were soon lost among the tents.