Once, in the middle of the night, she came to me. It was early in my convalescence, a terrible time when all my injuries fully manifested themselves, and their treatment often entailed the most exquisite pain.
The doctor explained that my spine had been bruised, and the nerves were swelling in such a way that I felt first a tingling, then a burning, and finally a bone-deep ache down both arms, shoulder to fingertips. It would heal of itself, he told me, but it might be a long time, perhaps months, before I could use my hands normally again.
I had been given an anodyne at bedtime, but its effect faded long before it should have, leaving me writhing on my cot. I may have cried out for help; certainly my groaning and thrashing disrupted the sleep of the few others in the dormitory.
I got up and went out into the day room, with the intent of walking off the pain if I could. Not surprisingly this brought little relief, and may have made matters worse. But there was no point in returning to bed, and pacing back and forth at least gave me something to do.
After a long while, there appeared, in the dim light beyond the threshold of the surgery, a figure in a long robe and hood. The shape moved closer, and I backed away, uncertain if I had invoked some demon of the night to torment me further, or else the Companion had come to conduct me out of this world.
But then the hood was drawn back to reveal the face of my nurse, her hair unfastened, eyes still puffy from sleep. Somehow, I had never thought to picture her as an ordinary soul who wore a night dress in order to sleep in a bed, and the look that must then have crossed my face seemed to cause her own expression to soften towards me in that moment.
Patient is a gifted storyteller, and indulges this gift at every opportunity. But there is no possibility that the dreadful wounds sustained by this young person are self-inflicted. The true events and conditions issuing in these injuries are of no concern to me or to the doctor, except insofar as our knowing them can help us do our work. Still...
She led me into the surgery, where she lit a fire under the kettle. I could only gaze at her, unable to speak, as she went about preparing an infusion of bark tea. When it was ready, she opened a cabinet with a key suspended from a sturdy but beautiful chain around her neck, and took out a tiny bottle with a glass stopper; to the potion she then added a single drop from the phial, which she replaced and locked securely in the cabinet again.
The tea was bitter, but had a wholesome aftertaste that spread warmth through my body as if I were being lowered into a hot bath. The nurse smiled to see my reaction, her face still gentle from recent rising. Soon the pain lost its savage sharpness, and I was able to move my arms with some ease again. She asked if I was ready to go back to sleep; I replied that I was exhausted, but also felt reluctant to disturb my fellows in the dormitory with my restless noise.
She appeared to consider for a moment, then took my hand and opened the door to what I'd thought must be a linen closet, and indeed the room beyond was tiny. But against the far wall was a true bed — not a cot or hammock — rough-hewn and small, but with a mattress and two pillows in addition to the bedclothes which she had recently thrown aside to come to my relief.
It was an uncertain moment: her generous gesture could so easily have been misinterpreted, were anyone to learn of it, but I do believe there was more to her intention than professional concern for my comfort. There was also no danger of impropriety, on my part at least, given the condition of my injuries.
So I lay down upon her bed, and sank into the warmth of her smell as she covered me with her blankets and went to sit at the little desk out in the surgery, where she opened a ledger and began to write by the light of a candle. In moments I must have fallen asleep, and the next morning awoke upon my cot in the dormitory, knowing nothing of how I had returned thither.
In the days that followed, I saw more than once that same measuring look in her eyes as she attended the doctor's examination of his patients. This led me to believe that what I had experienced that night was no mere vision of delirium, and in time this impression was confirmed when she asked me, as she changed my pillowslip after just such a visit from the doctor, if I was still having difficulty sleeping. I responded that the single application of her potion — or perhaps her unexpected kindness — had been enough to banish my sleeplessness ever since, and indeed the only dreams I remembered were suffused with calm joy.
I saw that it took some effort for her not to smile, but she was clearly not a person much susceptible to flattery. She said she was happy to hear it, then chaffed me solemnly that I should continue to dream so if I could.
Patient's suffering lessens day by day; the question now arises: How long...?
I cannot escape the feeling that my nurse is waiting for me to say or do something — or for some development in my condition that has yet to take place. The latter would be the logical explanation for this feeling; but I somehow believe the former is the case. If so, I am unsure what it is she wants from me.
Our midnight meeting has not been repeated, though more than once I have long lain awake, trying to decide whether to get up and go to the day room again, to see if she would reappear as before. I have not done so, of course; I feel it would be dishonest: my pain no longer agonizes me; indeed, my medication has been reduced with no ill effect.
In a short while, I know, I will be released, and go on to whatever life I can make for myself in what remains to me of the world I was driven from that night.
This notion makes me think that perhaps *I* am waiting for something from her: but what? a valediction? some kind of blessing upon the journey I must now take? She knows what was done to me — that much can be deduced from my injuries. It would hardly be difficult for a thoughtful person to wonder how I came to be the only survivor of that annihilation.
How could such a wretched creature as myself expect any blessing from anyone, ever again, let alone from the angel of mercy she is to me?
And yet, I realize, that is exactly what I await from her.
Patient's injuries are healing well, but a pall of sadness and anxiety seems to have taken hold of this poor young person. I fear that unless something is done to relieve this burden, no combination of medicaments will bring about a recovery.
This spiritual affliction is not uncommon in those who survive when others around them perish; if that is so in this case, it will not be within our power to effect relief — rather, such persons must turn away from sorrow of their own accord.