The Wind Seller
Minas Basin, NS: May 31, 1924
The schooner is stranded on the mud flats, the tide almost all the way out or already on its way back in—Hetty despairs of keeping track of the water’s daily creep with the ease of the villagers, who count on their fingers from the last new or full moon. Esmeralda climbs down the wharf ladder first, then extends her hand to Hetty, who struggles with her dress and worries about her shoes.
“It’s easier to board when the tide’s in.”
“I would think it’s easier to board in trousers,” Hetty responds. She brushes her hands over her clothing, as much to rid herself of the disconcerting feel of Esmeralda during the ride to the wharf—wiry hand about her waist, muscles in her lean thighs adjusting beneath her—as to straighten and dust her dress.
“Possibly.” Esmeralda seems even more distracted now they are aboard. Hetty, standing at a slant on the deck of the schooner she was spinning fantasies around only a few hours before, feels the same; Esmeralda’s fretting is contagious, and Hetty is not without misgivings, is not naive enough to believe her actions won’t have consequences. Peter will want an explanation. His wife, hurried out in the middle of the afternoon by Noble Matheson and a beautiful young female sailor in men’s clothing. Already she is editing the tale for his benefit.
Esmeralda vanishes down a set of dark narrow steps at the bow of the ship, and, her pulse racing, Hetty follows. At the foot of the steps she bumps
up against one of the crew members and almost leaps backwards. The skinny man she saw that first day. Except that isn’t a birthmark on his face. A carbuncle has spread its poison across the man’s left cheek like a knuckled port wine stain, disfiguring him. Carbuncles, one of the doctors had said repeatedly during Hetty’s years at the Nova Scotia Hospital Training School for Nurses, manifest themselves in the weakest part of the body but gather their corruption—here he rolled his Scottish r’s with relish—from every organ, limb and digit.
“I’m sorry. You made me jump.” The air is close down here, almost wet with moisture. He grins, but his eyes stay cold—like a dead fish, Hetty thinks, watching him disappear up the stairs. He isn’t the patient she’s come to see, but someone should lance and drain that thing on his face.
The dim light, the lack of air, the angle of the floor on which she is standing are all disorienting. Esmeralda has disappeared into the gloom. When Hetty reaches out to the side someone grabs her hand. Noble Matheson. Her first instinct is to pull away, but her eyes still adjusting, she allows herself to be guided towards the bunk beds corralled on the side of the mess. Hetty smells the man she is here to tend before she can make out his form in the narrow berth. Breathing thickly through her mouth, she approaches the cot.
A young man. Someone standing in the shadows hands Esmeralda a kerosene lamp and Hetty takes in his sweat-drenched face, his pallour, his eyes, glassy with pain. John James is scarcely more than a boy.
“John James,” she says gently. For some reason children always better handle their pain than they do their fear.
“J.J. This lady has come to make you better. She’s a nurse.”
“I’m not any—” Hetty begins but Esmeralda taps a warning on her arm. When Hetty turns around she all she can see is the lamp Esmeralda is holding. When she looks back at the comatose boy in the bunk, spots dance before her eyes.
“He has a bit of a fever. Not much, though, not enough to make him this ill. He is a strong man usually.”
Man? Exactly how old is this man, Hetty wonders, with his plump lips, his skinny hairless chest and the faintest burr of a moustache on his upper lip? No more than sixteen, for sure. Esmeralda leans forward and, pulling the grubby sheet back from J.J.’s legs, reveals a wound in the flesh of the boy’s inner thigh, just above his knee. The stench of rot is stomach-turning. Hetty feels her nurse’s demeanor slip like a second skin over her face. Pustulence and the telltale blackened skin of necrosis. Part of this boy’s leg is already dead. She squeezes his hand. J.J. doesn’t stir; in fact he seems to have no sense of the people around him. How long has he been lying like this?
“How did this happen?”
A silence fractionally longer than it should be, and the back of Hetty’s neck prickles. “This wound. What caused it?”
“He slipped on deck, the circumstances are a little confusing. Somehow he managed to impale himself on a grappling hook.”
Somehow indeed. “The bone is shattered.” Crepitus. She kneels on the floor of the cabin, not wanting to cause the boy more pain by disturbing the fractured bone. Her statement is met with silence.
“So there is nothing still in his leg?”
“Such as?” An edge has crept into Esmeralda’s voice.
“Debris, a piece of metal. Even a shred of fabric, something from the pants he was wearing can bring on this kind of infection if it’s left too long.” Bullet. Only a bullet could have caused such destruction. She opens her mouth to say as much but it is as if Esmeralda has drained the air from the cabin and Hetty can no longer breathe.
“It was cleaned out,” Esmeralda says eventually, and air flows back into the tiny cabin, Hetty’s jaw unclenches.
“When was that? How long ago?” By whom? For she would like to wring his neck. It is just such meddling that has caused the infection. What had he used? A dirty penknife from his back pocket? Or had he taken the knife the cook just finished preparing dinner with?
“The day before yesterday.”
“He’s been sick this long? Why didn’t you take him straight to the doctor?” She holds the back of her hand to his burning forehead. “J.J.,” she
says again softly to the boy, who might or might not be able to hear her. She takes his pulse as he mumbles in reply. Nonsense words. Delirium is a late symptom. His heart is racing. “He was fine until this morning.” Now Hetty knows she is lying. This wound has been festering more than a few hours. “And then his leg swelled and . . . everything just happened so fast.”
“He has gas gangrene.” The cabin is deathly quiet. Gas gangrene. The soldier’s nightmare. “See the bubbles of air under his skin, the bronze discolouration.” She says it out loud, partly to reassure herself of her own diagnosis. Hetty hasn’t had any real experience with gas gangrene, but she’s heard tales. It is a front line disease mainly. Not that you couldn’t develop it from an industrial wound, a cut from a ploughshare that turned because it wasn’t treated quickly or aggressively enough. The wounds of boys she’d met in that last year of the war became infected because the mud they had crawled through had been farmed for generations, was contaminated with centuries of manure, and now body bits—soldiers, horses, dogs. But they’d usually had the offending limb or limbs amputated in the Casualty Clearing Station in Europe, long before they came under her care.
“I’ll need some things,” she says, her own pulse quickened with the act of taking charge. No time to waste. Blood poisoning is the next and, given the circumstances, fatal stage. The dead tissue needs debriding. A doctor’s job usually, but she knows the procedure. “Iodine. Peroxide. Do you have any?” They should have something about for cleaning wounds, stuck out at sea for weeks on end. “Carbolic acid will do. Some clean rags. And a knife. It should be razor sharp.”
Esmeralda turns and mutters instructions to the lamp bearer. The lamp is passed to Matheson and the first man scurries away. Minutes pass and Hetty hears feet coming down the companionway. Now there’s a press of people at her back, thickening the already stale air. Another lamp is lit, and a third. The lamps are held aloft. Other hands come and go, assembling the necessary items on an upturned crate by the side of the bunk. Esmeralda slips an apron over Hetty’s head. Hetty mumbles a thank-you. She’d rather have gloves to protect her hands from J.J.’s wound, but she appreciates Esmeralda’s concern for her dress.
Pouring peroxide on the rag, a much-laundered undershirt, Hetty wipes her hands: backs, palms, fingers, nails. Choosing the smaller of the two knives laid out for her—what looks like a paring knife—she sterilizes first the blade, then the handle, then braces her left hand on J.J.’s right knee for support, and approaches the wound. His skin is already cold. Hetty flinches, grits her teeth. Though J.J.’s unfocussed eyes roll in his head the fire is elsewhere in his body. Having long since lost all sensation in his lower leg, he does not stir at her touch.
Air thick with the high sweet scent of decay pushes at the base of Hetty’s throat, hot and humid. Beneath her undergarments her skin is slick with sweat. More peroxide. She pours it undiluted over the wound, and begins scraping. Like a rotten pear the dead flesh yields to her knife and falls away; brown pus runs over her hands. Someone places a bowl on the bed beside her and she fills it. Knife, peroxide, another dripping rag. Quickly she is down to the bone, glistening white. It is always a shock, the healthy
whiteness of bone. Peroxide again. She could run out before she finishes. Then what? But she doesn’t have time to consider. Staring hard at the thin wavy red line on J.J.’s skin that marks the border of the gangrenous tissue, Hetty swears she can see the infection advancing before her eyes, creeping up his thigh, the surrounding flesh swollen hot and tight.
“Someone is going to have to go for the doctor.” Why Esmeralda hadn’t called for him in the first place is beyond her, given the severity of the boy’s wound. “I can’t treat him. It’s too far gone.” Esmeralda is biting her lips.
“There’s nothing you can do?”
Hetty stares numbly at the red line on the boy’s leg, feeling a part of herself retreat, wishing herself well away from here and the demands being made of her. She is a mill owner’s wife now, her hands are soft and she wears pretty dresses and party shoes. She cannot summon what she needs here.
“Your village doctor, Dr. Baker, he’s away delivering a baby out at a farm somewhere. It’s too far away. His wife says she doesn’t expect him back for hours yet.”
Hetty wipes the sweat from her face with the back of her arm and bites herself, the edges of her teeth sinking into muscle, trying to stem her threatening tears. Why ever did she answer the damn door?
“Please say you can do something, that you can make him well again.”
Make him well again. Who has put all this on her weakened shoulders? It
isn’t fair. Her back is so stiff and sore she thinks all she can manage is to lie down beside J.J. and weep until the pressure in her throat eases. Where is that feisty young girl who leapt at fate and threw herself into caring for the wounded the morning of the Explosion? Where the practical nurse in her sensible shoes, her black leather bag crammed with remedies and her head with no-nonsense advice? What have Peter Douglas and Kenomee village fashioned her into? Just who has she become? So many eyes on her, she can feel them on her skin, in her hair. Is she being selfish? She’s only ever assisted once. She looks down at John James again. He is just a boy, with a mother somewhere, missing him.
“Do you have any laudanum?”
“Laudanum. We may have some.” Esmeralda turns to one of her troops. “Laudanum. Go on. Go.”
Hetty raises her hand from her lap and, well clear of the red line, draws a finger across J.J.’s leg.
“A tourniquet. Something strong, like a leather belt.” She clears her throat. “And I’m going to need a saw.”