It cannot be long.
My breathing is laboured, a striving between my will and a determined instinctive deed.
A moist fluttering slips from my lips and I remember the countless times I heard the ominous gurgle before, long ago, when I was young, impressionable, afraid, and very far away.
I gently swab the oozing wound, careful not to hurt the maimed soldier any more than necessary. He moans in his drug induced stupor, probably dreaming again of the muck-filled trenches, the blinding shellfire, and searing assault of the mortar as it ruthlessly slashed through his leg.
A fresh rivulet of blood trickles from the blackened wound, and I press against the flow with a fresh linen. The water in the basin is soon scarlet, but mercifully the soldier is quiet. Chances are, the bed will be empty by morning, since the wound is too grievous, the streaks of infection already travelling heartward.
The ward is full of men in similar straits, and the stench of blood and pus is sour, layered between pitiful mewlings and guttural groans that make my insides writhe.
Tender stalks, mown down like new hay, not even in full bloom.
It’s with relief I can sit in the sunshine for a few moments of sweet air or maybe take a walk through the nearby streets. Anything to escape the miasma of death and horror, although the guilt is consuming, even for those few stolen moments.
It is on one such small excursion that I see him. He is sitting at a sidewalk table at a bistro, drinking coffee, eating a sandwich. I hurry past, as much as I was drawn to the sight of a soldier not mangled, not bloodied or muddied, not staring in perplexity and pain into stupefied oblivion.
How to condense a lifetime into the next glance, as the sounds of the street still, the pedestrians slow, the traffic all but disappears. It is so trite, so cliché. Nevertheless, it is so. The everyday melds into the extraordinary, the exceptional.
He looks up from his British newspaper, which blares hideous developments from the front lines, the horrific losses, the valiant victories, all of which translate into mutilated minds and shattered limbs in the wards where I work. I hear the screams, even from the indifferent bustling sidewalk.
I slide into the chair, and my hands tremble beneath my cape, in spite of the warm day. I must drink the coffee quickly, for I must return to the reeking ward and the watchful eyes of Matron. Such dalliances are forbidden as they are thought to be unseemly and serve no purpose.
We talk, filling a few minutes with a lifetime of happenings, colours colliding, stories permeated with intense looks and significant touches. I return to the bistro the next afternoon. We know, within days, we are alike, we are different, we are matched.
So it is, amidst the thunderings that grow closer every day, time stands still and yet diminishes, and the rainless lightning brightens the sky treacherously. How could we deny the relentless rhythm, the pulse of the mortar fire, the call of death to our souls, to the now, to the never, and the never again.
Somewhere in the rat-invested, sludge-filled trenches, under a shellfire lit sky, he died. I never see his broken body, just his name on the endless lists tacked to the door of the military office.
It is both a relief and a regret.
Every wound I tended afterward, drained his life’s blood. Every whisper from parched lips, murmured his final words and thoughts. Every tear from unseeing, glassy eyes mourned his losses. I touched, I listened, I wept. I watched him die again and again in the destroyed bodies of every soldier that passed through the doors of the hospital. Strong young men. Someone’s husband, son, lover. My husband. My lover. Over and over, he died in my arms, the crimson froth spilling from his lips, the light in his eyes dimming, but the love always burning until the very end.
I cough. I am afraid as the breath stalls in my throat, heavy and imposing. Then, peace, for I know the inevitable is soon, too soon, yet too long in coming.
The love still burns.
I close my eyes.
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