Mage: The Gun Quarter
Five - LaFleur
Michelle held the hand of a soldier lying on a cot. His fever had grown after an infection had set into his wounds. Without a fresh supply of antibiotics all they could do was try to keep his temperature down. He was sweating through his bed sheets and shivering at the same time.
The soldier’s eyes lolled back into his head and he groaned. Occasionally, in fevered fits of pique, he would come to and display a moment of clarity. In halting French, he would remind Michelle she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. He had the wherewithal to overcome the limitations of his rough, American accent and proclaim her skin the fairest, brown hair most lustrous and her bright smile the most beautiful things he’d ever witnessed.
He was as charming as a fever-maddened man could be.
For Michelle, living in the fetid horror of this church, surrounded day after day by the dead and dying, this charming American with black hair and a dark, piercing gaze was a pleasant refuge. He was slim and wasting away now, but she could tell that he was once a very rugged, handsome man.
His hands burned fiery hot against her skin. His body radiated so warmly that it made her small hands turn pink. He feverishly and clumsily lifted her hand to his face and held it against his cheek.
“Mon cher, mon cher,” He muttered. “je n’ai jamais vu un ange comme vous.”
Michelle felt her ears burning. A sense of hopelessness caused her chest to ache. She wanted so badly to save him.
“Sommeil maintenant, mon cœur,” She whispered softly.
His eyes lit up and focused on her face momentarily. He smiled and kissed her hand. He set his head down onto his pillow and pressed her hand to his cheek once more. She thought if his fever broke, he would survive.
Michelle dipped a strip of cloth into a bucket of cool water sitting next to the cot and wrung it out slowly. She placed the damp compress onto his forehead and held it in place. She stole a second look at the name sewn onto the patch on his jacket, Lafleur.
He was an American with a French last name. She didn’t know where he was from or how he learned to speak such terrible, unmusical French. She barely knew him at all. She didn’t know if he had any brothers or sisters, she knew little of the details of his life.
As she nursed him, she used her own imagination to fill in the blanks; two sisters, two brothers, Marie, Claire, Jacques and Francois. His mother was surely named Claudette and father, Nicolas. She pretended they were tailors and seamstresses for the fabulously wealthy elites of New Orleans – a proud family who’d sent their wonderful, gallant, young son off to war to fight for the motherland and make France whole once again.
She felt his time with her at the Church in the past few days before had been more meaningful than some couples who’d been married for a lifetime. War had a way of doing that to people’s perspectives.
She knew it … she felt it, even if she didn’t want to admit it aloud. Amid all the misery, you have to look for that some small piece of goodness and hold on tight.
Lafleur was her good thing.
From the moment he’d come into the church he’d been a terrible flirt. He had a minor flesh wound to his leg that required cleaning and wrapping. The second he laid eyes on Michelle, he poured on the charm … but his hands didn’t wander and neither did his eyes. He respected her, despite having no reason to. He was utterly focused on her the whole time, eyes constantly trying to catch her gaze, hoping she would glance at him when she walked by or brought him food and water – when she did make eye contact, he would break into a big, bright smile.
His affection gave Michelle hope. It made her feel better.
The doors to the church slammed open, echoing off the marble floors and vaulted ceiling. Two men burst in, a medic and an old man. They were carrying a stretcher with a third figure lying on top of it.
Michelle jumped up from her seat and gasped. She ran to help them, guiding them to an empty table where the wounded man could be set down. Immediately, she noticed blood leaking from the old man’s eyes, staining his face and beard. It dripped down his clothes, fresh and raw, pooling on the floor at his feet.
A doctor arrived in a harried state and looked down at the man on the table. He went to place his hands on the wounded man and inspect the injuries to make a diagnosis. The old man slapped away the doctor’s hands, shoved him away and cursed with a mixture of English and French.
“Isha! God dammit!” The old man shouted. “Isha!”
Michelle knew Isha was in the kitchen. She tapped the old man on the shoulder and pointed.
“She’s in the kitchen boiling rags,” Michelle spoke in French.
“Get her, now!” the old man roared.
Michelle didn’t know what he was saying but she inherently understood his tone. She ran toward the kitchen, dipping and dodging between the rows of wounded. Isha was lifting wet rags out of a pot with a paddle and setting them out to cool so they could be hung to dry.
“Your friend is back with the Englishman. They’re injured and he says he needs your help,” Michelle explained.
Isha turned her head. A look of worry formed within the craggy lines of her face. She set down the paddle and rushed from the kitchen.
“Come with me,” she called to Michelle.
A makeshift operating table had been set up on a wooden table. Seeing the fresh wounds was a horrific sight, blood was everywhere. The Englishman’s limbs were limp and bent at unnatural angles. He was unconscious, a blessing in disguise since the pain would have been agonizing. Karl looked torn up and hurt too but seemed oblivious to his injuries.
Isha pushed past the bewildered, flustered doctor and leaned over Jack. She set her hand gently on his chest and uttered a phrase in patois. Dreamlike images flooded her mind and some of his pain was felt by her. The stabbing pain in her wrist, leg and ribs was brief but vivid. Isha shuddered and felt a peculiar sweat break out on her forehead.
“What happened to you?” Isha spoke in French. She looked to Karl.
Karl’s eyes darted up at Isha, the doctor and Michelle, then back down to Jack. They were blood-red and still leaking.
“It was a shell hit,” Karl glowered. “We got caught up in an artillery strike.”
Michelle looked closely at both men. She’d seen enough wounded men to know these injuries didn’t look like an artillery strike. The flesh wasn’t torn up as if hit by shrapnel. The Englishman looked like he’d been run over by a car. She held her tongue.
“Help him clean up his face, I can’t have him bleeding all over everything,” Isha pointed to Karl and commanded Michelle to action.
Michelle hesitated for a moment. Until a few short days ago, Isha had not been much more than a little old woman fetching buckets and carrying bed pans. Now, white doctors were being shoved aside so she could treat a patient. Michelle could see the French doctor’s face grow red with fury.
“Just who do you think you are?” the French doctor cursed, his words were filled with venom.
Michelle set her hand on his chest to hold him back from striking Isha. Isha paid him no mind, she’d seen enough and lived long enough to ignore the casual, petty discrimination of feckless white men.
Karl stepped back from the table and thrust himself into the personal space of the doctor. Karl grabbed the man by the lapels and gave him a rough shake.
“She’s going to save his life and you …” A drop of blood fell from Karl’s cheek and landed on the doctor’s shoe with an audible splatter, “You’re going to fuck off.”
Michelle held the doctor back and turned to Karl. “Come on, Isha said we need to get you cleaned up. She’s right, we can’t have you bleeding all over everything.”
The French doctor balled his fists in an attempt to defend his wounded pride. Karl noticed the knuckles turn white and the clenched jaw. He could see the man getting ready to hit him.
“Try it – I’ll pull your spine through your belly button with my fist,” Karl growled.
Michelle pulled Karl toward the kitchen. “Come now, we’re all exhausted. Isha will need your help.”
The doctor backed away, cowed by Karl’s threats. “His death won’t be on my conscience.” He stormed off to find a new patient to treat.
In the kitchen, Michelle grabbed one of the warm, wet rags Isha had set out to dry. She folded it in half and began wiping the blood from Karl’s face. His beard had soaked up much of the moisture, turning it into a smeary, clotted mess. He tolerated Michelle’s ministrations because the pain in his eyes subdued his preference to help himself.
“What happened out there?” She whispered. “What really happened?”
Karl grunted. “We got caught by a shell burst.”
Michelle sighed. “I’m not stupid. I know what shrapnel wounds look like.”
She pressed the compress to his left cheek and wiped away grime and blood. Karl seemed to soften slightly. His hand trembled.
“There are horrible things that happen in war … things best left forgotten,” Karl said.
He gently grabbed her wrist and prevented her from wiping his right cheek. He took the compress from his hand and wiped his cheek on his own. She looked into his sad, grey eyes and saw how tired and spent he was.
“There are others who need more help than I do. You’re a fine nurse … go help them,” Karl said.
It was then, Michelle remembered Sergeant LaFleur, still laid up, wracked with fever. She stepped away from Karl, nodded her head and left him to clean up. Out from the kitchen, she walked past Isha who was whispering prayers and binding the broken arm and leg of the Englishman.
Michelle sat back down beside Sergeant LaFleur’s cot and saw his eyes were half open, cloudy, gazing in the direction of Isha and the Englishman. Michelle grabbed his hand and squeezed it tight, but this time it did not squeeze back. It felt a little cool and the flesh was unresponsive to the touch. His hand felt like stiff rubber.
She drew her hand away and looked to his eyes again, realizing the sparkle was now gone. Tears welled up at the corners of her eyes but she blinked them back and bit her lip. Her chest heaved with a stifled, half-sob.