Authors: James Markert
Tags: #Retail, #Historical, #Fiction
Copyright © 2013 by James Markert
Cover and internal design © 2013 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Laywan Kwan
Cover illustration by Alan Ayers
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious and used fictitiously. Apart from well-known historical figures, any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A white wind blew : a novel of Waverly Hills / James Markert.
(hardcover : alk. paper) 1. Sanatoriums—Fiction. 2. Music therapy—Fiction. 3. Physician and patient—Fiction. 4. Race relations—Fiction. I. Title.
In memory of Bill Butler
A talented publisher of books…and an even better person.
My wife and best friend, thank you for never letting me give up on a dream. You’ve given me the best gifts imaginable in our two beautiful children. I want for nothing, because I believe I already have it all.
eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.
“Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and may everlasting light shine upon them.”
A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.
Sketch by Robert Markert
Wolfgang fought the wind. It was typical Waverly, a wind that lashed around brick corners and whistled through porch screens, always lurking and unpredictable. It came in cold bursts from the hillside and surrounding woods, pulsing one minute and barely beating the next—both friend and foe, cure and killer.
He kept his eyes fixed downward as he limped across the solarium porch, well aware that many of the beds were empty because of him. He arrived outside to a mixture of chatter and coughing, which died down the moment he reached the wooden podium. This was a crowd he had illegally assembled. Well, maybe it wasn’t illegal, perhaps, but forbidden, for sure. He took his trademark stance, unbalanced, his weight slightly shifted on his left leg. His breath crystallized in the frigid air. He attempted to straighten the stack of music he’d prepared hours before, but the breeze struck again and his hands were too unsteady.
Wolfgang looked up. More than thirty pairs of eyes stared back at him, waiting, tiny clusters of breath exhaled from frozen noses and chapped lips. His musicians were ready and the choir awaited his guidance, everyone trembling in the cold. They watched him in silence, these men, women, and children, and he could see the trust in their eyes: a tiny sparkle like fireflies against shadowed sockets and glossy pupils. So thin, all of them.
The surrounding woods would accompany them. Their voices would travel down the hillside, over the buffering treetops, and toward the rest of the city—a city that lived in constant fear of the Waverly wind.
, he thought.
He returned his attention to the choir.
He closed his eyes briefly and thought of Rose…and the last words from her lips.
Then a sole cough from a young boy in the front row stole him from the past.
Wolfgang cleared his throat. Taking a deep breath, he raised his arms, bringing forth the lyrical, soothing sound from his orchestra. He could feel it in his heart and in his bones, and he could see it making its way through the rest of them, a warmth where once there was only cold.
January 23rd, 1926
I apologize for not responding sooner. I’ve been away from the abbey for several weeks. It is with great sadness that I write to you. I am so sorry to hear about Rose’s death. I know how much she meant to you. God has His reasons for those He calls early, so you must remain strong in your faith, Wolfgang. All the monks here are praying for you, and together we will get through this.
I was so proud when I heard you had become a doctor after leaving the abbey (I’m sure our Latin came in handy), but it makes me even prouder now to hear of your intentions to return and join the priesthood. Youth is on your side. Nothing can replace your love for Rose, but I’m certain God will give it His best. You are already doing His work at Waverly Hills, so I understand, with your shortage of doctors, that you must remain for the time being. Per your request (and permission granted by the abbot due to the unusual circumstances of the tuberculosis epidemic), I’m enclosing your theology books, cassocks, and studies so that you will be well on your way to completing your training when you do arrive here.
Yours in Christ,
Saint Meinrad, Abbey
Waverly Hills Tuberculosis Sanatorium
Dr. Wolfgang Pike could always tell when the rain was near. He felt the stiffness in the morning first, soon after the roosters had begun to wake the hillside, and by afternoon it had become a constant ache in the bottom of his right calf. His ankle had all but locked up, and no amount of massaging could loosen the muscles and bones of his withered right foot—his heel had been raised in a permanent tiptoe since age eight, when polio rendered the foot nearly useless and transformed it into a weather vane. On the morning of Tad McVain’s arrival at Waverly Hills, the ache was nearly crippling.
Not a drop of rain had fallen at Waverly for twenty days. The woods were full of gnarled, naked tree limbs, and the dry air carried with it a crispness that led to watery eyes, bloody noses, and a tickling in the back of the throat. But these blue skies would not endure. Already the cumulus clouds skittered above the bell tower, blotting out the sun, and when the first drop plopped against the rooftop, it set loose like hail all over the grounds, pinging off the gutters and walkways like machine-gun fire. Torrential rain pelted the trees, the rooftop, and the grassy knoll that led down to the woods.
The sanatorium’s buildings were under attack, it seemed, the rain coming down in sheets past the screened-porch windows, the entrances turned to mud within minutes. Nearly five hundred patients watched from their beds on the porches, and many cheered the sudden change in weather. Men and women in the cafeteria stopped eating and stared out the first-floor windows. At the children’s pavilion, all the kids clamored to play in the storm. The teenagers hiding out in Lover’s Lane quickly hurried back to their rooms, laughing and drenched and plotting how to sneak back to their beds. The pumpkin patch flooded. The pigs snorted and rolled in the deepening mud.
Later Wolfgang might have called it a warning. But even aspiring priests are mortal and cannot tell the future. It was already a busy day; he had just witnessed the second death of the morning, and he’d only just begun his rounds. He watched the downpour from inside the nurses’ station, a small bricked structure on the rooftop that contained a handful of rooms for housing Waverly’s mental patients. To get down to the fourth-floor stairwell he needed to cross the open area of the rooftop, and his skeletal umbrella provided little protection. But he didn’t have time to wait, so he stepped out into the hard rain.
Normally the rooftop of the five-story sanatorium would be crowded with heliotherapy patients and children, and one could see the city of Louisville miles away, even the Ohio River and the spires of Churchill Downs on a clear day. Today visibility was a mere fifty yards, at best, and he was alone up there. He hurried away from the mental ward into the deluge, no longer protected by the length of the looming bell tower, his footfalls barely steady on the tiles. Careful to avoid the slick leaves, he braced his left hand on the brick-and-stone wall that bordered the rooftop and squinted into the wind, dragging his right foot. He passed an empty seesaw and the three rocking swings behind it—rooftop playground equipment so that the children could get closer exposure to the sun. It saddened him to see them unused.
A door slammed behind him. Wolfgang looked back toward the nurses’ station. The wind had blown the door open, sending it crashing into the brick wall. Nurse Rita appeared in the doorway, holding on to her white cap as she reeled the door back in. Above her the bell tower touched the low-lying clouds and a rumble of thunder enveloped the property. Thunderstorms in January were not the norm in the River City, but neither were twenty deaths in a single day, which had occurred on three different occasions since Christmas, when the temperatures lingered in the single digits and the patients, no matter how thickly they were bundled, could not find warmth on the solarium porches.
One of the mental patients screamed—the sound cut through the noise of the storm—and Wolfgang moved away from the shrill voice. It was not deep enough to be Herman’s voice. He could tell it was Maverly Simms, the fifty-year-old woman with schizophrenia and with TB in every part of her body except her tortured brain. She’d most assuredly just noticed that her roommate, Jill, had died. Jill was a mute, prone to violence against others and to herself, but for whatever reason, Maverly’s bouts of hysteria and rants of senseless drivel had calmed Jill. So they’d been placed together, and the situation worked well for three weeks. But Jill had passed away during the night.
About thirty minutes earlier, Nurse Rita had called Wolfgang up to the rooftop to help prepare Jill’s body. Maverly had been awake but far from lucid when Wolfgang arrived with his black bag. She’d been in her rocking chair, staring out at the rain and approaching storm clouds, whispering softly, “Maverly at Waverly. Maverly at Waverly…”
“Maverly.” Wolfgang’s voice had drawn no reaction from her.
Nurse Rita stood next to Maverly’s rocking chair and then turned at the sound of Wolfgang’s voice. “It’s like she’s catatonic, Doctor.” Rita had a pretty face and innocent dark eyes. She was young and, in Wolfgang’s opinion, not seasoned enough for her current duty. Wolfgang had questioned Dr. Barker’s decision to put her on the rooftop. Unfortunately for Rita, Dr. Barker liked to throw his staff right into things. “Baptize them by fire,” he always said. And indeed, when Wolfgang had arrived this morning, Rita had been crying. Her jaw trembled. Her hands were clinched into tight balls, her fingernails pressing hard into the meat of her palms. Wolfgang approached her but kept his eyes on Maverly.
“Has she said anything yet?”
“No.” Rita glanced at Maverly. “She’s just been sitting there, staring out her window. Talking to herself.”
“Come on, then.” Wolfgang shifted Jill’s body on the bed and started the cleaning process. “Lincoln’s on his way to remove the body.”
Wolfgang knew that tuberculosis didn’t discriminate. It invaded the bodies of the young and elderly, black and white, men and women, sane and not so sane. From a sneeze, or a cough, by speaking or a kiss, airborne particles containing tubercle bacilli floated unseen in search of another host to infect. They became established in the alveoli of the lungs and spread throughout the body, sometimes quickly. The entire process with Jill had lasted only a few months—just long enough for her to be missed.
After a moment of silence, Rita wet a rag and dabbed Jill’s lips before cleaning her fingernails and combing her silver hair. Wolfgang propped her head up on pillows, closed her eyes, and put in her false teeth. It was important to get the newly deceased in the best possible condition before another patient noticed her.
“I want my cakes,” a man screamed from Room 502 next door. The voice was loud and booming, as if in competition with the thunder and rain.
Wolfgang sighed, scratched his head. “Herman?”
Rita nodded, fingertips to her forehead. It was not the first time Herman had ranted about wanting cake, just the first time of the morning.
“Ignore him.” Wolfgang placed a hand on Rita’s shoulder on his way out. “He’ll stop eventually.”
Rita took a deep breath. “I’ll be okay.”
Wolfgang trusted that she would be.
Wolfgang reached the stairwell and lowered his tangled umbrella. He smoothed his hands over his dark wavy hair and black beard—a beard he’d trimmed regularly ever since he’d started it as a teen, never allowing it to become too thick in the fifteen years he’d had it, yet full enough to keep his face warm during the cold Waverly winters. According to some of the patients, he had a baby face, so at least the beard helped him look closer to his age of thirty-one.
By the time he reached the fourth-floor solarium porch, where dozens of beds faced the long screened windows, he couldn’t hear Maverly or Herman screaming anymore. Either they’d stopped or their voices were drowned out by the sanatorium’s other noises—noises that chased him down the solarium as he quickly passed the beds and sidestepped an orderly pushing a squeaky library cart of books.
Wolfgang disagreed with Barker on how the sanatorium was structured: Men on the second and fourth floors. Women on the first and third floors. Children ushered off to the children’s pavilion. Lunatics sent to the rooftop. They all were able to mix and mingle in the cafeteria, workshops, in the theater, and during special events like Christmas and Easter, but for Wolfgang it wasn’t enough. In fact, he thought they shouldn’t separate the patients at all, telling Susannah on many occasions, “We’re not a prison!”
There was a conglomeration of laughter and moaning as mist from the heavy rainfall found its way into the screened porch and onto their bed covers. Some patients smiled and talked, read, or played checkers or chess; some shaved and listened to music; some cried out in pain and spat blood into their bedside pails. Some still slept; others drank milk and watched the weather with blank faces.
Halfway down the solarium, Wolfgang spotted Nurse Susannah Figgins heading his way. Her dress was the nurse’s standard white, with a matching cap atop her curly blond hair. Her skin was pale, a stark contrast to her pretty brown eyes and rosebud lips. She reached into her dress pocket, pulled out a folded piece of paper, and held it out toward Wolfgang as she approached.
Wolfgang’s heart skipped a beat just before the exchange. At just under six feet, he was three inches taller than Susannah and two years older. Unlike Rita, Susannah had very little trouble dealing with the mental patients on the rooftop, and Wolfgang attributed it to her confidence. She lifted her chin slightly as she spoke. “Today’s request list.”
Wolfgang checked over his shoulder in both directions before unfolding the paper. He glanced at the list, slid it into the pocket of his wet lab coat, and smiled at Susannah. “Thank you, Nurse Figgins.”
Susannah rolled her eyes.
Wolfgang started to walk away when Susannah grabbed his arm and gently tugged him closer. “Wolf…” She lowered her voice and handed him a tiny flask. “For Dr. Waters. Courtesy of Lincoln. See him first. Dr. Barker’s on the third floor.”
Wolfgang discreetly pocketed the flask next to the folded paper, nodded toward Susannah, and moved on.
Wolfgang stopped in the open doorway of Room 207, where Dr. Henry Waters, his fellow doctor, mentor, and friend, wasted away on a bed only ten feet away—eyes sunken and surrounded by pockets of shadow, a shell of the vibrant man he had once been. He’d lost so much weight it was difficult to tell he was the same man in the picture on the bedside table, where he stood on the front lawn at his riverside home with his wife and three daughters, two of whom had already lost their lives to tuberculosis.
Wolfgang gave Dr. Waters another two days to live, at the most. At forty-five years of age, Dr. Waters was the second oldest doctor at Waverly Hills—five years younger than the chief doctor, Evan Barker—and had been second in command until the disease they were trying to cure had suddenly left him confined to a bed. He’d grown thinner and weaker the past twelve months.
Dr. Waters’s tuberculosis had started in his left lung, quickly spread to the right, and within months it had begun to invade his bones and skin. No amount of fresh air, sunlight, or healthy food had been able to slow the “white death.” His flesh was pale, his skin tight against a defined, hairless skull. Dr. Waters had been bald since his thirtieth birthday. Wolfgang had never even seen a picture of him with hair, so the idea of it was quite foreign to him, but now the lack of hair made him seem that much closer to becoming a corpse like the rest of the bodies that Lincoln sent down the chute.
“Someone there?” Dr. Waters called out.
Wolfgang stepped into the room. “It’s me, Henry.”
“Wolfgang.” The hint of a smile etched across Dr. Waters’s chapped lips. His voice was raspy, strained. His eyes remained closed. “Have a seat.”
Wolfgang sat in a folding chair next to Dr. Waters’s bed and beside a second bed that was vacant for the moment, the sheets tucked against the outline of a pillow, prepped and ready for a patient they had checked in just after sunrise. Wolfgang placed his black bag on the floor between his feet and leaned toward the bed. “How are you feeling, Henry?”
“Like death…taking a shit.”
Wolfgang chuckled. “Of course.”
“Any questions…that aren’t stupid…Wolfgang?”
Wolfgang grinned as he pulled out the request list that Susannah had given him. “Your name is on the list today, Henry. Didn’t know if that was a mistake.”
“No, not a mistake.”
Wolfgang read the request next to Dr. Waters’s name. “Niccolo Paganini.” He laughed. “Caprice Number Twenty-four in A minor.”
“You are aware that I am not an Italian virtuoso on the violin?”
“Yes. Very aware.”
Wolfgang bent down, unzipped his black bag, and removed the violin that had been jammed inside next to his flute, harmonica, and piccolo. “You know Paganini bested tuberculosis?”
“But not syphilis.”
Wolfgang brought the violin up to his neck and paused as he stared at his friend, whose eyeballs danced beneath closed lids. Three months before Dr. Waters’s diagnosis, Waverly’s only colored doctor moved his family south to Alabama to open his own practice and get away from the Ohio Valley. Dr. Waters had taken over the patients at the colored hospital before he started getting sick. But his illness had left them with only three doctors and six nurses for nearly five hundred patients and a disease with no cure, a disease so contagious that the city treated Waverly’s hillside like a leper colony. Many feared even a glance up toward the trees surrounding the Gothic building, and all lived in fear of what they called the white wind that often swept down the hillside like lava from Mount Vesuvius. Citizens held their breath whenever the white wind blew, and passing cars quickly rolled up their windows.
Their third doctor, a young man named Jefferson Blunt, had left the hillside weeks after Henry was diagnosed, unable to face the pressure. He’d been married for less than a year. His wife was pregnant with their first child, and they couldn’t take the risks of living and working on Waverly’s hillside any longer—neither the patients nor the staff were allowed to leave. Now, until more help arrived, it was just Wolfgang and Dr. Barker covering both hospitals.