Gladys Howard had seen the dead, the ones clinging hopelessly to the last strands of life, those with missing portions of a once full body, some who would need to have pieces of their bodies severed to save their life. She’d seen so much in only three months, and already she felt numb to it. Even now, using all of her strength to hold the young soldier down as the doctor sawed off his left leg below his knee, she was thinking only about her next cigarette.
She smoked now. She told herself that everyone did. It seemed to be the one reminder of the lives they’d left behind back home. Home, she thought. Did that ever exist?
She thought back to the long dresses. The shoes with their absurd heels. The hats and shawls that kept them covered and yet alluringly mysterious. None of that would do here. In the thick mud of over-trodden Earth. Of the streams of excrement flowing like soggy rivers of filth through the makeshift paths of the camp. She nearly laughed at the thought of getting the blood she now had all over herself on the clothes of Dotty from back home. A woman from the same neighborhood as herself and yet she talked as if money dripped from her tongue. Dotty would probably die of embarrassment if her dress was covered in such filth.
The soldier screamed once more through the wooden bar he had gritted between his teeth. He’d passed out, most did, though the procedure was only half completed. She relented her grip on his body, looking at the blood on her apron and hands, this was the new world. This was life now. She watched as the saw went back and forth. The grinding noise no longer sent shivers up her spine. It no longer made her ill. It was just a sound. Like the screams. Like the buses back home. Or the gunfire here. Like the light of a match. Just a noise.
The saw met table and the leg was pulled away from the boy’s body. The doctor wiped his forehead. He looked at her, smiled, asked if she was getting tired. She shook her head. She’d be standing there another hour, just like that. Just in case the boy decided to wake up.
When the sewing of the wound was completed she washed her hands as best she could, unfazed by the redness of the water and what still remained colored on her hands. She stepped outside the tent still full of agonized moans and screams, pulled out a cigarette, lit a match, inhaled, and felt her shoulders finally ease as her muscles relaxed.
Her hands no longer shook. She no longer cried at what she saw with every new patient. Every new reminder of just how horrid man’s wars were. She thought back to her life only months ago, but no longer recognizable to her. She hadn’t laughed since she’d arrived here. Any smile on her face was false, hiding her sorrow for those she smiled at as she watched them mutilated, or watched as life passed from them as if exhaling it from their lungs.
She was amazed at how quickly a person could be alive and then dead. She’d known how death was supposed to appear, but watching life transform into dead weight, it was perplexing.
The cigarette filled up her lungs and she let the haze expel from her. This is life, she told herself. Taken in a breath, a sense of relief and joy and sometimes alarm or discomfort, and then an exhale. That build up released. And one after another the cigarette’s life was spent in the same manner until at last it was extinguished prematurely, or the last embers died away, nothing left to burn. And then it was just gone. Onto the next one, the last simply forgotten.
This was life. By any other words, by any other eyes, this, like any other, was just a life. Extinguishable. Forgetful. Meaningless except at that moment of necessity. Then gone.
The cigarette was nearly gone, and no longer tasted as sweet as when she’d started it. No longer tasted as sweet as the first she’d smoked upon coming here. None had ever tasted the same, and still she kept at the habit waiting for the moment she would be reminded of that first memory.
It hadn’t happened yet. She knew it never would. Nothing ever remained the same. Smiles and laughter simply became something else as the world around her became different. She could no longer be the person she once was. Could never feel what she felt before. Could never return from the world she’d come to find was reality the same as any other.
She dropped the cigarette, put her foot against it mashing it into the mud with a sickening squish, turned, and went back into the tent. Back where voices asked for help, asked to be saved, and all she could offer was her pleasant face and smile that used to be real. She’d assure them, as if assuring herself with as much conviction as she could muster, that everything would be fine. Just fine.