*I completed this story in 2021 as part of one of my course's finals for my MFA in Creative Writing program. With a few edits, I have decided to post it here on Vocal. Please be warned it does have mentions of war and death.*
Scutari, Ottoman Empire
On Christmas Day of 1834, Dorcas Calverley had brought her only living child, Sophronia, into the world. The birth was blessedly quick. Her pains began in the morning and resulted in a bonny girl by late afternoon. Reddened and distraught, a thorny cry rasped up the babe’s throat. She brandished her little fists like rosebuds waiting to unfurl. Sophronia was going to be beautiful from the beginning.
The Christmases after were dual celebrations for Christ’s birth and Sophronia’s.
A lovely day for a lovely daughter, Dorcas thought as she tugged at the fabric of her nurse uniform. Unmanageable thing. Florence Nightingale’s utilitarian inclinations— a drab gray-brown dress ill-fitting and billowy-sleeved at best but at the very least warm, the little white doily-frilled hat that kept pinned hair tidy despite the daily bustle from sickbed to sickbed—failed to inspire the usual commendation Dorcas had for the younger woman. Today something quiet and cool, something close to despair pressed the breath from her lungs like a too-tightened corset.
At half past six o’clock in the morning on the twenty-fifth of December in the war-torn year of 1854, Dorcas made her way toward the dining quarters to break her fast with the Irish Sisters of Mercy at the Scutari Hospital. She preferred to keep their schedule. It called her to service by seven o’clock in the morning and took her back to her bed around nine in the evening. Florence, apparently indefatigable by will alone, had taken to visiting the ill in the darkened hours carrying a lamp the Ottomans preferred in Constantinople, cylindrical with a ribbed-paper middle to press the metal endcaps together like an industrial oyster with the promise of candlelight instead of a pearl.
Dorcas’s meal of bread and broth and water sat before her. The Sisters mingled at the table, their softs murmurs lilting with their Irish brogue between bites of buttered bread and sips of water.
My Christmas child Sophronia, Dorcas thought, are you well, my dear? Eager for turkey and mince pies and pudding? Is the weather too cold? Have you kept yourself bundled and warm?
As seven o’clock tolled, those at the table stood and began walking to their designations. Four of the Sisters went in the direction of the surgical wings. Splitting from them, Dorcas advanced toward the other men, the medical cases needing rest and healing.
Passing a window encased by an arch, Dorcas thought of the building she resided in now, one far away from her family’s estate and her daughter. The hospital’s exterior was almost grandiose: large and square in a nest of hills, windowed white stone walls topped with red-tile shingles, sharp towers rising from the corners. But the inside routinely left her eyes wet and red once she was able to get back to her little quarters after her rounds were complete. Aside from smaller wards tucked behind doors, the hospital wards were largely like hallways. Each one became hall of misery, a Hall of Mirrors without any gilded trimmings. A soldier saw his reflection—past, present, or death-foretelling future— in the suffering of his countrymen in the beds across from him. Over two-thousand men languished here.
Christmas 1854. Her daughter’s twentieth year. Nearing her designated ward, Dorcas was again surrounded by the smell of sweat and blood. Yet she was not taken abed with contractions and pressure weighing on her bladder and bowels. A little life did not ache to exit her womb. Instead, Dorcas was soaked in Scutari’s bottle of death’s perfume; it was like life’s except for the nuances of sweet-rotten infection, dead-fish smelling urine-soaked mattresses, and heavy dung.
The smells tended to dampen into a familiar sort of stink. Ever-present, largely manageable when one did not have moments to ruminate on the way it invaded the nostrils to sit at the back of one’s throat. At the beginning, nearly all the nurses vomited upon entrance. Even stolid Florence had excused herself once or twice on the first day of their service, lips pursed and trembling while her throat tensed along convulsive swallows.
It had been odd seeing her seasick face on sturdy ground. They’d all gotten acquainted with one another’s nausea-tells on the steam-driven Vectis. The general expectation seemed to be that their excursion across the Mediterranean was to be a low point—the trundling along of France by train to Marseilles a gay affair by comparison— and that the acts of helping and healing soldiers performing their duty to the crown, fighting alongside the Ottomans and the French against Russia, would somehow uplift them all in working spirit and in soul.
“We’re parcels,” willowy Sarah Graham had said while waves grappled at the boat. Pithy, Dorcas had thought. They’d heard the Vectis was once used as a transporter of mail. “No need for letters, we’re gifts enough. We’ve even got the good and Godly Sisters and our own Dorcas.” Sarah had given a weak little titter as she'd patted at her sweaty brow.
Dorcas remembered laughing before she had placed a hand on her own roiling stomach.
Sarah Graham had passed just as November took its leave for December’s approach.
Sophronia, you had a cough when I left. You’ve improved by now, yes? You’re waiting for me to come home?
Melancholia. It was the feeling that crept in her lungs and made her head heavy as if one of the Ottomans had placed a too-large turban upon her crown. Of any sad-spirited place Dorcas had seen in her forty years walking the earth, the Scutari Hospital was the one most steeped in melancholia. It was an infectious affliction here, almost as nefarious as cholera or typhoid. If she died, she was out of Saint Peter’s reach unlike her namesake.
Would you resent me, if I did not return to you? Would your Christmases be as lonely to you as this one is for me?
The wards were loud. For some, the melancholia turned to rage; for others, delirium.
She reached the bed of the first man she was meant to tend to—a bath followed by the redressing of his infection-reddening gunshots wounds, a dose of Florence’s carbonate of potassium to reduce the fever tinting his skin, ascertaining if his cough worsened, and ending with a meal of rice pudding—and found him gargling deep in his lungs.
His name was John Judkins, a young soldier of twenty-two. Wounded on the battlefield at Inkerman, wasting away under lice that keep reappearing despite regular washing.
She caught his eyes. They were gray-irised and bulging from a skin-and-bone face. He swung an arm toward her with an open palm. “Hel-”
Dorcas lurched forward and took his hand in hers.
“Yes, Mr. Judkins. I am here. Calm down, now, that’s a dear.” Her voice was steady, but her heart sped.
"’elp,” he said. His hand tightened on hers.
“Just waiting for the fit to pass. That’s all.”
He must have been dying for days. John was just one of those patients who couldn’t become well. She’d seen the sick back in England where their bodies withered away. She'd seen them here in Scutari as well, but she'd hoped better for John.
He fell back against his tatty bed, gulping in air that seemed to lodge in his throat. His mouth was starting to edge blue. A rat scuttled around Dorcas’s feet.
His hand sweated in hers, grip tight until it wasn’t. She glanced at his face. His jaw slackened, eyelids pulled back.
Perhaps for just the span of a breath, the groans, the weeping, the whispered conversations, the delirium-induced cackles lulled—like the instant between a final straining push and gritted scream and the wobbling wail of a newborn.
As the noise crested once more, the rattle of John’s lungs stayed silent. She closed her eyes.
My Christmas child Sophronia. Are you well, my dear?
About the Creator
Hello! I'm mostly a writer of fiction and poetry that tend to involve nature, family, and the idea of growth at the moment. Otherwise, I'm a reader, crafter, and full-time procrastinator!
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Original narrative & well developed characters
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme