The next Natalie installment is done, complete with nursing exams, ice skating in the city square, a dying revolutionary and an embrace suddenly interrupted.
A breakneck pace is required to bring this volume in by the end of January. I'm hoping to finish and post the third and final installment of this chapter by Monday night or Tuesday.
Kiev, Russian Ukraine. December 7th, 1914. The second week of December marked the end of the Red Cross certification program at the Prince Mikhailov Hospital. Written examinations were on Monday. They had three hours to write treatment plans for a set of hypothetical cases.
As the clock marked the hour, Sister Levchenko placed a poster-sized printed sheet on the easel at the front of the room, on which was written the case with a small diagram. They took up pencils, and began to write. After fifteen minutes, Sister Levchenko rang a handbell. Pencils down. She placed another case on the easel. Natalie turned over a fresh sheet of paper, took up her pencil in cramped fingers, and began again.
After the cases they were given a thirty minute break during which the fourteen women taking the test nervously sipped tea in the other room and discussed the questions. Was that fifth case typhoid fever? How could it be when it didn’t mention swelling of the abdomen? Natalie soon took herself away to a corner of the room and tried to shut all sound from her mind. No discussion now could change the answers she had already written, and she wanted instead to recall everything she could of the many diagrams and names they had memorized over the last ten weeks.
Sister Levchenko stepped in and rang a bell, summoning them all to the second half of the written examinations. Now every fifteen minutes a large diagram was placed on the easel, labeled only with a set of numbers: the muscles of the body, the bones, the soft organs, surgical instruments, types of bandages. On their papers they wrote out the numbers and began to fill in the name of each. By the end, the last few terms were swirling and stooping in Natalie’s mind like vultures over the carcass of her knowledge. The sphenoid bone. The name was clear to her, but was it that part of the head or the stubbornly unlabeled bone in the wrist?
Time was up. She turned her papers in and walked away.
“Do you want to get a cup of tea? Perhaps some pastries?” asked Elena.
Natalie looked at her, drained. She wanted to share the feeling of struggle and accomplishment with someone, but there was nothing left in her, a vessel poured out and dry.
“I’m sorry. Not today.”
It was early to return, still not quite dinner time when she reached the Lutereks’ house. As if in confirmation of her mood, the December sun had already gone down and the streets were in dim twilight. Perhaps she could take a nap before dinner. Or just go to bed.
Sara bounded into the hall from the sitting room when she heard Natalie enter.
“Oh, what do you think? Borys is coming home!” She waved a piece of army stationery. “He’s finished artillery officer training and has two week’s leave before he reports to his unit. He’ll be here for Christmas!”
Natalie stood and stared at her. Borys was one of the kindest, most amusing men she knew, and yet she felt nothing at this news, nothing at her friend and former pupil’s excitement.
Sara was still talking, rhapsodizing about the times they would have over Christmas.
“I’m sure I’m very excited to see Borys again, but after the Red Cross examinations I have a headache. I need to lay down.”
As she went she heard Sara offering sympathy, but already Natalie was hurrying up the stairs. Still dressed, she collapsed onto the bed on which she had found it so difficult to sleep the night before and found that now sleep was mercifully easy.
Tuesday was a fallow day before the panel examinations, and there was nothing to be done. When she awoke, Natalie looked at the little stack of brown and green cloth-bound books on her table and knew that consulting them further during this one day would be no help in the type of examination she would face the next day. If the weather were warm, this would be the day to cast all things aside and ask Sara and Lena to go with her for a picnic in one of the parks, but snow had fallen during the night, and the mask of frost over her little window was lit brilliantly by a clear, cold day.
For a long time, longer than she could remember doing before except when sick, she lay under her pile of blankets watching the light shift subtly on that pattern of frost, as the sun rose higher in the sky. Then, of a sudden, everything became intolerable. She shivered into her clothes and was glad that she saw no one as she slipped down the stairs and out of the house.
The city was bustling. Soldiers were everywhere, yet these happy, smiling, talking, gawking men seemed of another order than those who lay in the rows of beds inside the hospital.
Instinct and the pressure of the moving crowds brought her towards the city center. A stand was selling hot potato pancakes, and she bought three, carrying them inside her muff for a while, where they gave off a delicious warmth. At intervals she would take one out, eat a few bites, and return the rest to her muff to continue warming her hands, until the last few bites were barely warm, but still savory of potato and onion.
The cold of the last two weeks, more appropriate to January than early December, had allowed the city to pour the skating rink in St. Michael’s Square early. Booths and stands surrounded it selling food, drink, and all manner of things which a soldier visiting the big city for the first time might want to buy, for himself, for his relatives back at home, or for the girl he met here.
2016 Reading in Review
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