Here is a short bit of the story I’m “pantsing” at the moment. It came to me the other day when I was looking at black & white photographs of Arctic explorers with darkened noses. It’s short, and I am not sure it moves plot, but I wanted to write it anyways. Think of it as a side-trip.
Where I’ve Been – Part 7 1/2
“What do you mean you’ve never done an amputation before?”
Nessa regarded the short, squat, rumpled man overtop of her patient’s feet. She wanted to smack the condescending look off of his face, but instead, she smiled, and nodded towards the swollen and purple baby toe in front of them both.
“I’ve never had to deal with injuries so grevious before, Captain. I guess in some way I am very lucky.”
The man grunted. Her patient, a young man barely out of his teenage years, looked from one to the other, panic setting into his eyes, jerking his leg out of the Captain’s grasp. Nessa patted his other leg and tried her best to smile at him. He must be worried she would take his whole foot or something, not being experienced.
“Don’t worry. I’ve watched lots of animal neutering procedures, it can’t be much different.” she said, as business-like as possible. “It will be fine. Having this toe off will be better, you’ll be able to walk again in no time.”
The young man blinked at her a few times, opened his mouth as if to speak, and fainted away, his head hitting the converted banquet-surgery table with a dull thunk. As the Captain took his hands off the patient’s legs, he grunted again, and scratched at his scalp.
“Best get on with it then. He’ll wake up soon enough.” the Captain quipped. “And try not to cut his bollocks off by accident. That tends to make ’em mad.”
Realizing that talking about neutering while carrying surgical implements was likely not calming to her patient, Nessa blushed and turned away from him and his rude teasing. She eyed the surgical set that she had inherited a few years ago, and counted under her breath to calm herself and focus on her tasks at hand. She may have never cut someone’s appendages off, but she had cut out many a large splinter, and dealt with countless lacerations. It couldn’t be that much different, could it? She set to arranging her tools, to give herself more time.
So far, in the two days since she had walked over to the hotel, she had treated severe dehydration, malnutrition, stitched wounds, cut out gangrene and dead tissue from others, and set broken bones. She’d administered willow bark for fevers, cleaned rashes and blisters, and organized some of the ladies to come under the guise of haircuts, arming them with strong lye soap and some of her old medical tweezers to get rid of lice and ticks. Somehow, she had become the grand master in this mayhem, and every now and then, her mother, or another of the women would come over, press her into a chair, and give her a cup of tea. For the past eight hours, she hadn’t left the hotel kitchen, dealing with progressing wounds that wouldn’t heal, or now, an amputation. A minor one, for sure, but nonetheless, this man was going to be less one toe when he left.
She wasn’t sure if she should be sad, but pushed the notion away. She could deal with it later. She’d been pushing it away every since Barley had shown up on her doorstep just after lunch the day they came.
She had noticed the cap on his head, and the strict, unemotional mask he had set his face in, and the happy remark and offer of lunch died on her lips. She’d wanted to question him, but had again stopped herself from talking when he had sagged against the door, and rubbed his face. She didn’t dare touch him either, for fear she’d set off emotions neither of them had time for. He’d taken his cap off, crushing it in his hand, and asked her to come help, not meeting her eye. She knew it was the last thing he wanted her to be caught up in, but from his grim stance, she knew their visitors were in a bad way.
She wouldn’t admit it, but she was secretly thrilled. A chance to speak to outsiders, and help was something she hadn’t realized she was excited about, until that moment when he confirmed it was indeed his army, and they needed her skills.
She also knew that once this was over, she was going to need to do something, or all the tension she’d been pushing down would explode.
Nessa picked up the tiny saw she would need to cut through the toe, and watched her hand shake. She wondered if it would be like cutting through the turkey leg at Christmas to get to the marrow, and went a bit white at the prospect that this was not going to be a cooked turkey leg, but a live human. She closed her eyes for a moment, clasped both hands around the implement, and prayed she could do this one thing well. She had repeated that prayer over and over each time the next patient was brought into her surgery. As she finished her prayer, she felt more determined. There was no one else who could do this, and this man needed her help.
She opened her eyes to Barley, bent over and looking into her face. She took in the stubble of beard, the wild hair under his army cap, and the stained shirt he was wearing, sleeves rolled up. He had been up to his armpits in helping the men get settled. As far as she knew, he was also staying with them, not going home. In two days, they had barely had a moment to even talk to one another, except to nod in passing. Once again, Barley had given her mind to so many questions, and again, they would have to wait.
“Yes…. No.” she said, sighing and noticing that the Captain had somehow gone amiss as she had been preparing herself. “I’m about to cut this poor man’s toe off and I’ve never done that before. I’m a little nervous.”
Barley glanced at the man, still quite unconscious, and then looked closer at the toe in question. he tilted his head.
“Right. Want some help?” He asked. He touched the toe, wiggled it a bit, and grimaced.
“The whole thing.” Nessa said, catching what Barley was thinking. “Its pretty much gone. He had a hole in his boot and he never noticed, so he said. For two days we’ve been trying to save it, but…”
Barley nodded, and stood up again. After dusting his hands, he palmed both shins on the young man, looking away from her.
“Seems we have done this before.” He remarked, flexing his shoulders.
“Yes. Any tips this time?”
“From what I have seen when this is done, you’d best be quick or you end up with a bleeder. It will be a flash of extreme pain for him, but do it slow and you prolong it, and nobody wants that. He’ll likely wake up and take a swing at me, so be ready with your gauze. I’ll hold his legs, you worry about stopping the blood and dressing the wound. Got it?”
Nessa simply nodded, glad suddenly for his confident presence, and her hands mercifully stopped shaking. She grabbed a strip of linen and tied the tourquinet on his calf, pulling as tightly as she could. She wiped her blade down with her antiseptic jar of vinegar. she wiggled the toe, pulled it slightly to separate it from the rest, stuffed in some linen to hold it out, held it out tight and then, looked up at Barley’s back, thanking God he was there, right then.
“Ready?” She asked, very, very quietly.
“You can do this Nes.” He replied over his shoulder, and flexed his grip on the man’s legs one more time. He nodded quickly, and braced.
Nessa held her breath, poised over the foot, and emptied her mind to all but the task at hand. With one jerky back and forth, she cut the toe off, feeling the hardness of the bone as it cut quickly through, the flesh, dead and hard coming away from the rest of his foot easily. With a small click, it dropped into the bowl at her feet, blood spattering her, the floor, and the bowl. With another motion, Nessa dropped her saw, grabbed the foot with one hand, which was now twitching, while simultaneously jamming cotton spun bandage down on the end of the wound with the other. Blood seeped through, but wasn’t gushing, and she breathed out.
“Dear God that was quick.” She croaked out. “I had no idea…”
Before she could finish her statement, the young man woke up, and with an ear-wrenching wail, sat up, flailing with his arms, whacking Barley’s cap to the ground. Barley grunted and held the injured leg down, while the other hand went to his chest, pushing.
“Lie down man, lie down. It’s over now.” He said, repeating himself until the wide-eyed and sweating patient did just that, small whimpers coming from him as Nessa continued to press the gauze and check for clotting.
They waited a few agonizingly slow minutes, and once the bleeding stopped enough, Nessa was able to take the torquinet and bandage off to check the stump where the toe had been. She realized she could pull the edges of the skin together over the top, and give him a clean wound, and picked her stitching needle off her tray.
“I need to get thread from the pot on the stove over there. I’ll be right back.”
Barley nodded, and patted the young man on the arm. “See? She’s going to make that gangly foot of yours pretty.”
The young man grunted and turned his head towards Barley. “S’pose I’ll walk funny now, eh?”
“In time it will be normal.” Nessa heard Barley say as he sat on a chair nearer to the man’s feet. She listened, her back to them, as Barley asked the man about his family, where he was from, and if he had a sweetheart. She relaxed as she dropped more threads into the water to sterilize them. He was good at calming people. He’d always been good at that, even when he was just a young boy. In calming her patient, he was also settling her nerves. She’d done it, and it hadn’t been that bad.
Once gathered, she returned to her patient, and received a weak smile from the young man. “Miss, thank you.”
“Thank you? For what?” She asked, surprised.
The young man held up his left hand, and she noticed he was missing half his middle finger. She blinked, and looked into the young man’s eyes, searching for the pain that must be there.
“Oh.” She managed to say when all she saw was relief. He gave a weak smile and then let his head rest on the table again.
“The last doc who took a piece of me wasn’t near so nice. Took him near an hour, the pansy, and it hurt like a sonofabitch. You can cut off my toes anytime they’re needin’ it.”
With that, he closed his eyes, and Barley turned and looked at Nessa, who now had her hand to her mouth in suppressed laughter. She shook her head, and then got back to the task at hand, which was threading the needle to close off the wound. In this chaos, there was still levity, she thought. She could feel Barley’s eyes on her, and she lifted her head.
“Some interesting friends you have here, Captain.” She remarked, and threaded her first stitch.