They were knees that had known the bites of many hardships over sixty years of life: of bare brick hearths before simmering copper cauldrons; of uneven flagstones beside soapy sponge buckets; of unforgiving vegetable beds strewn with broken flints.
Of knotted woolen rugs at successive generations of sickbeds; of frosty turned earth at snow-littered gravesides; of iron-hard leather kneelers in the narrow pews of Sankt Monika Kirche in the foggy bottom of Hamburgh on the Potomac.
And now, most curiously, the bite of this bare wood floor: the floor of an upstairs ballroom in the mansion of a wealthy Washington family (fled south, in the early days of the Rebellion; the house seized soon after by the Army of the Republic and converted into something now resembling a hospital ward).
This floor: upon which once dozens of pairs of soft-soled shoes had beat the complicated figures of quadrilles, the somber treads of marches, the fanciful sweeps of waltzes—
Upon which once the stately trains of dowagers had serenely trailed—
Upon which once limp bunches of roses had been scornfully thrown, in moments of lovers’ pique—
And upon which once a too-full silver goblet had seemingly fallen, ringing as it rebounded back into the air, red wine spattering trousers and skirts, leaving a dark gouge behind, an unmistakable scar on the soft ballroom floor, never fully to be waxed or buffed away—
Yes, Lotte Heine had old, bad knees. And she knelt upon them here.
• • •
In them, soldiers slept all around her. (Or did not sleep, as their conditions dictated: tossing and murmuring instead in feverish pain, wearing a rut in the night that they would follow all their lives to come—bad night after bad night—restless and sleepless, pain-gathering and guilt-gathering, until their nightmares harried them into the arms of some fatal numbing relief: alcohol, opium, self-mortification, pessimism, misanthropy—)
So too had Sleep and Death wrestled over the slain Sarpedon in ancient Greece: those winged twins in identical tunics, helms and sandals, shown always working in tandem, one at the head and one at the feet, the fallen naked soldier draped senselessly between them.
Lotte Heine had seen such an image once on a brass tavern spittoon that some jokester had painted in mimicry of a red-and-black clay krater. And she had wondered: How to tell the difference between them? How to tell each identical twin from the other, Sleep from Death or Death from Sleep, as they manhandled the fallen soldier on the field?
But here, sleep was nothing like death. For death, at least, was quiet—
• • •
But at night, with blue shadows softening his hardness, he looked like an angel. (Not like a cherub, nor like the clean-shaven archangel Michael who gazed down benevolently from the windows in Sankt Monika’s: but something like a Hebrew angel perhaps, how Lotte imagined the earthy angel who wrestled with Jacob must have looked.)
Most of the soldiers looked similarly angelic in the cold and eerie hours just before dawn, once they had worn themselves out and stopped their thrashing and moaning, in those darkling hours that belonged only to the night nurse and the night watchman, before the rooster crowed, before any others were awake and working.
And it was in these hours that Lotte Heine retrieved the small silver lacrimarium from inside her frock, and knelt at the bedside of some angel-looking youth, and pressed its cool rim against his quivering dewy lashes, and drew from the corner of his sleeping eye the bitter black tears of the hate and fear and despair that tormented him during the day—
• • •
(After all, her grandfather had done as much during her girlhood whenever he passed a stone, trousers untied as he staggered from kitchen to yard, flinging crockery and violently verdamming all that his eyes fell upon, sweat streaming from his bald head, face contorted in pain. Her grandmother smothering him with her body, her small frame heaved and hauled along with his every twitch and contortion, sometimes for hours and hours on end—)
Lotte Heine did not consider herself brave either. Not even when she was called to wrap her own arms around a straining soldier’s neck and hold him flat against the boards, a wooden broom handle mashed between his teeth and stark fear in his eyes as the surgeon rasped the sawblade lightly across a shin above a blackening foot, preparing to pitch into his work—
(Her own father had winced and gurgled too in her arms, twice a day as she hauled him from bed to workbench and then from workbench to bed, his broken back and nerveless legs dangling below his waist, pain racking him all the while as he leaned propped against his table, willing his fingers to hold the tweezers steady, willing his eyes to focus through the watchmaker’s loupe, until one day when Lotte Heine had been only fourteen years old, he had caught pneumonia and had never risen from bed again—)
Lotte Heine did not consider herself self-sacrificing either.
But the black tears that she drew out of the soldiers in the small hours of the night, she swallowed and bore in her own breast, until she could pray and work and love those tight black pills of hate and bitterness away, dissolving them harmlessly into nothing.
Until then, she could feel them under the fatty white expanse of her skin, pushing back against her fingers, those dozens of hard little pellets: bigger or smaller as the case may have been, each one disintegrating slowly inside her, but new ones added on at a faster rate, just as new cots were added to the ballroom floor, new bodies, new shipments of mangled men: those little pills becoming first a double- then triple-loop around her throat under the high collar of her dress, like a long string of pearls wound around her neck and embedded under her skin.
• • •
“Hssst Großmutter—” came the call from the next cot over. The cot just beyond the one with the bear-faced angel, where Lotte Heine still knelt, her lips drawn flat and tight, her eyes squeezed shut as the sharp black pill slid painfully down her throat toward her breast.
“Hssst Großmutter—” came the call again. Not the angel, not he. The man in the next cot. “Großmutter, why won’t you help me too?”
Bit by bit, Lotte Heine shook off the shock of the new pill she had swallowed. It had been such a small one: the angel’s black bitter tears had barely filled a quarter of her thimble-sized lacrimarium, but that did not make it any less difficult to swallow.
He was looking better—far better already. That was what made it possible for her to bear this, night after night. Indeed, his face had softened in the lamplight, no longer wearing the pained and cynical look that she had seen gathering on his brow earlier that evening. He would be quiet and beatific in the morning—better able to endure his wounds and focus his energies on healing his body and spirit. Just as the doctors drained cysts and boils, so too the evil venom collecting in the souls of the men must also be drawn away, lest it fester and infect their future lives.
“I say, Großmutter, can’t you hear me?”
It was the same voice again. At its repetition, Lotte Heine began to cough, the icy pain of the new pellet throbbing in her breast. She looked around in the dim light of the ballroom, seeking for the man who kept calling to her. The nerve of the boy! Calling to her even as she knelt there, swallowing burdens that she had never been meant to carry—
Ah, but then, he was only frightened, of course. He was only in pain. And she could bear it better. Always, she had known that, as her own grandmother had known before her. They truly could bear such things far better than these prideful, angry, impatient men—!
“What is it, Liebling?” She called low into the darkened room, fighting down another cough. “How can I help you, child?”
• • •
“Hssst Großmutter—” he said again as she bent over his bed. “Take my darkness as well. It suffocates me. It’s drowning me!”
As if to punctuate his words, the man gurgled horribly below her, making a dreadful gasping sound. Lotte Heine forced herself to look at his face, though she also was afraid and could not explain why. Countless times she had filled her lacrimarium with the bitter black tears of wounded men, but never before had she been entreated this way. Always, she had done her work secretly, quietly, while the men dozed, heedless of her kindness and sacrifice.
“I remember you,” said Lotte Heine at last. “I helped carry you in from the ambulance. You were alone in the cart, and looked more mud than man. Don’t they have water at Fredericksburg, I asked the other nurse. Don’t they know how to wash a man before sending him to the hospital by a dusty road?”
But her light words did not reflect how she felt in her heart. She did remember the man, but she had always given him a wide berth in her nightly rounds because he made her tremble. Even from the first moment, she had been frightened of him, and him alone, out of all the other wounded soldiers. There was something wrong about that one, she had told herself when she set him down before the doctors. Something wrong deep inside.
“All these other men, I see you bending over them every night. Wiping their brows and holding their hands. Even drawing their tears out of their eyes, and swallowing them—” The hard eyes shifted in the night, somehow growing even darker. “Why not me?”
But Lotte Heine made no response. What could she say? That she was too afraid? Too afraid of what she had thought she had seen in him? There was no little black tear to squeeze out of this man. He was solid darkness to the core, and she knew that he would overwhelm her. Though Lotte Heine had borne much in her life, she could not bear all that this man carried with him.
And the man said: “You don’t understand, Großmutter. But if you listen to my story, I will make it plain.”
• • •
Tell me, Großmutter—Do you know what it means to wake in an ambulance?
To begin as a dead thing, a no-thing, an insensate lump of unconscious coldness—
Then suddenly to be gasping for breath in a covered wagon thick with a fog of flies and gunsmoke? To lie bewildered in that swinging canvas bed, unsure where you are or what is happening, with not even enough presence of mind to form the thought that you might be damned in Hell already, but feeling it—knowing it—deep in your bones all the same, for what other place could be so tortuous and terrible as this—?
And then the wheel of the wagon drops into some hardened rut in the road, plunging the whole conveyance at once down, sharply—along with the bed, and your broken body, and the other patient in the next bed—throwing you all together as the world swings violently against one side of the van, and then against the other—
But at least, at that, your pain centers itself. Großmutter, do you understand?
The pain reminds you. It swirls like a vortex through the nerves of your body, and cracks like a whip hard against your knee. And mein Gott suddenly you have a knee again! From no-thing you flash into man-thing, then back out again into pain-thing—
Searing crescendos of it, burning brands thrust through the ragged wound, up into your leaden thigh, forcing a cry from your mouth: the birth cry!
And the gunsmoke—it evaporates along with the rest of the fever dream and those fantasies of Hell. But the flies remain. The flies prove real enough, damn them!
Bear in mind, Großmutter, that this all comes after you have already endured days of battle. Fredericksburg is the name of the town, they might have told you. A good German name—or at least German-sounding, for who knows who really lives there now. You never saw anything of it except shot-up fields and blasted woods. Not even a church steeple or a smokestack above the glowering hills—just cannon shot hissing and skidding across the sky and turf alike.
And don’t forget the wet nights in muddy holes! Not walking patrol, but squatting patrol, like a frightened animal cowering under a hedge, crouching from picket to picket in a void of starless black, navigating not by sight or by sense but by merest chance, ears straining at every breaking twig or rattling rifle for any clue to the next turning—then suddenly the sentinel’s challenge ringing out, close on the right side, confusingly close and confusingly placed, at a position you thought you had already passed, your sleep-addled tongue fumbling to respond with the English countersign but coming back with your own verdammt German mnemonic instead, meant to help you remember the word but the error registering in your brain just a fraction of a second too late as you call out “Warten! Warten! Wait, wait—!”
Then the searing blast and pop of a blind shot in the darkness—
And curses grinding out from between your lips as you find yourself face down in the mud, hands pressed hard against your thigh, above the knee that feels as though it has erupted, nerves singing through the air in an expanding corona of pain, as the picket from the next regiment of your own goddamned army thrusts a bayonet at you and misses only because of the pitch darkness of the night, stumbling over his own idiotic boots, recognizing at last as he disentangles himself (slowly, slowly, with the elegant patience of immense stupidity) the Union cut of your coat and hat—
Only then do you begin the waiting, Großmutter!
Yes, wait days more after the cataclysm for the ambulance to depart, with a bedsheet throttling the life out of your leg, and rumors muttering down the line of wounded and sick men: rumors of the arrival of phantom ambulances that never seem to materialize, and promises that the hospitals of Washington are only fifty miles away. If only anybody would come to take you! If only anybody would take pity!
I swear to you, Großmutter, there was a moment when a corporal walked up the line, his ridiculous mustache quivering on his lips (a remnant of some kind of obvious ballroom vanity, a thing no less absurd in that godforsaken place than a clean silk necktie on a fur trapper), the corporal barking for head wounds and stomach wounds, taking a man here and there out of order and bearing them off between stretcher-carriers to God knows where—the hospital or the abattoir, at that moment I wouldn’t have cared which it was, only knowing that if my bayonet had still been within reach I swear I should have slit my own belly open from navel to sternum if it meant that I might be taken out of that goddamned line!
(Don’t be shocked, Großmutter—neither at my language nor my cynicism. I have earned them. It remains to you to take them away!)
Ah, but the horrors don’t stop there. The ambulances are a horror of their own sort. No light in them at all except the sickly yellow glow of the sun through the canvas covering, muddled and diffuse, but making a clear enough backdrop against which to count the clouds of circling flies—droning, droning, all through a fitful, fevered sleep—patrolling for raw flesh like a flock of miniature buzzards—three, four, five, six of them at least!
Yes, that is how I woke, Großmutter. That is what it means to wake in an ambulance!
But whether it was morning or noon in that rolling wagon-hold of a Hell, I could not tell. Neither did I know what time during the night the convoy of ambulances had finally carried me away from the battlefield—nor how far along the road to Washington we had traveled already, nor how much father was left to go, nor how soon my sufferings might at last be over—!
It would have made no difference to have known, of course. The journey would take as long as it must take, just as it would be my part to suffer as much pain as God has commanded His angels to inflict upon me.
(Quiet your tongue—there is no blasphemy in that. Did He not do as much to Job?)
But my fevered mind seized upon that void of information with the force of a spring trap. How long! How far! How soon! It hardly even mattered what the answer would be. One hour left to go, or one thousand hours: I wanted only some assurance that an end would come at last!
Some end, any end, to that hellish dry-lipped swaying in a suspended bed, sweat-soaked and blood-soaked and even mud-soaked—the unwashed mud of the battlefield!—my wounded leg seemingly folded like a clasp knife underneath my body, impossible to straighten, heavy as a lead weight, both as cold as steel and yet burning like a brand in the fire—
I called to the attendant, but there came no reply. I turned my head and saw that there was no attendant there. His stool sat empty. Left alone! Abandoned! With no hand to succor or reassure!
I laid back, defeated, despairing. The unreasoning fear of being trapped forever in that ambulance swirling in my disordered head, when suddenly—I felt something move in the bed next to mine. Something that moved with a flop—or a slither—
My heart froze in horror, but then—of course! The other man!
“Sind Sie wach?” I asked, in both German and English, not knowing whether he was from my own German regiment of Indiana volunteers or from another one. “Are you awake?” The poor wretch! The only other one who could be as wretched as I! What a comfort it would have been to hear his voice.
But the only reply was a gurgle, from somewhere around the middle of the bed.
The man will die! So I thought. The man would die before we reach the hospital, and there would be no one even to report his name to the death lists. No one—save myself.
“Wie heißen Sie?” I asked. “What is your name?”
But the gurgle only trailed off into a quiet bubbling that sent a flight of shivers up my spine. It was, I was certain, the death rattle—
Ah, do not judge me, Großmutter! God only knows why I did it. God only knows why I reached out to pull the blanket away from his face. Some hope that I might look upon humanity again, perhaps, before its feeble flame guttered and died across the van from me.
But look I did! Tugging at a corner of the sheet with my enfeebled strength, pulling it taut across the body, then giving at last a hard tug that uncovered the man as far down as his breast.
I lay transfixed at the sight. Transfixed—and confused.
It (you will soon see why I call it that!) was black and red, twisted like a tree’s roots. Mashed like a clod of earth wrested up out of the ground by some giant’s hand. And there, at the top of the body, sat the gulping, gaping hollow of its face-or what I imagined to be its face—
Believe me when I say that I wanted only to cover it up again. Believe me that I did not willingly seek to uncover it—this man-thing or pain-thing or some-thing—any further—
But as if acting of its own accord, my hand twitched again, pulling at the blanket once more, uncovering it now down to the hips—
The hips! Ha, the hips—!
Understand: I have seen men shattered by cannonshot, twisted and thrown, their bodies re-set in fantastic configurations, limbs kinked and innards protruding, every joint and joining dislocated—
I have seen such sights often enough already (and God save me from seeing any such thing ever again) to know what is a man, and what a man can be made into—
But here was what was not a man, nor what had ever been a man, nor what could ever be a man—!
It was instead some mass of battlefield itself, the very bloodsoaked battle earth—a splayed ropey clod of black-red clay wound around and around itself like a cannibalistic vine, every cubit infused with human blood, Yank and Reb alike, the blood of four days of battle, the blood let from uncountable veins—
A dark and alien something, evil and exterminating, that had been taken up, in the haste and confusion of the stretcher carriers, in some gruesome mistake and placed in the ambulance in the bed beside me—
No, not a man indeed—a homunculus, perhaps, at best—a monstrous mixture of the animate and inanimate, of life and death, of blood and soil, of sacrifice and saturation—
And mein Gott, Großmutter, it flopped again.
Yes, as I stared in horror at it, the thing flopped.
Eyeless, mouthless, boneless—it slithered on the bed, knotting itself tight, seemingly stretching at the edges, as though fighting back into a shape that it had forgotten to make.
The torso, the head, the writhing arms and legs—and for a moment I could see what the stretcher bearers must have seen, a shape almost man-like, almost human! But just for an instant before it squirmed again, disintegrating now into so much struggling clay, seemingly trying to birth itself—to breathe life into its own hollow moveless lungs—
“Driver!” I called, though I knew no one could hear me over the clatter of the wheels. “Driver, steward! Hilfen mir!”
For I couldn’t move. I couldn’t escape. My dead leg pinned me to the bed like an anchor.
And I could feel the battle-born thing across from me beginning to slide over the short distance between us—slowly, horribly, flowing like a bead of hot tar—but so cold! so awfully icy cold! It touched me on the calf and I felt my leg turn to ice. I fought to get away—to roll out of the hammock bed altogether if I could manage it—
But I was caught! Pinned! Wrapped up helpless as the coldness descended upon me—
Swallowing me, feet first, working its way inexorably higher, as something inside of me rose up and surged away from that touch—panicked, terrified, bolting hard for its life—some remnant of peaceful humanity that I had borne somehow untainted inside myself, through months of war and sickness and horror—some flame-bright essence, being squeezed now, like paint from a tube, up and out of my hips, then my stomach, then chest, throat, skull—the pressure building and blinding me as the cool-clay touch of the thing covered over the last inch of my scalp and enveloped me utterly in darkness and death—
• • •
“It was a curious sensation,” the soldier said after a long pause, “the stopping of the ambulance. After what had seemed an eternity of a traveling torment, it was a curious sensation indeed to be still.”
His eyes turned to Lotte Heine and regarded her sadly, then dropped down to stare at the lacrimarium that hung from a chain around her neck.
“You know the rest,” he said. “The rolling up of the wagon’s canvas covering, the light steps of your own feet mounting the wagon frame, the stretcher furled on two rods. Then your hands on my body—but a strange numbness there, as though my arms and legs were dead things, like ice-cold pipes, nerveless weights—”
Lotte Heine looked away, in embarrassed pity.
“For a moment, it was as if I were watching from elsewhere—watching from the other bed in the ambulance.” His voice was ragged and low, as though spent from the effort of recalling and recounting the horrors he had experienced. Horrors that Lotte Heine did not doubt he had felt keenly—and still felt keenly!
“I called out!” said the soldier. “Did you hear me calling? From my other place, from the other bed. Calling: ‘Warten, warten—! Wait! Wait! You’ve forgotten me! Oh, you’ve taken the wrong one and left me behind!’”
Lotte Heine raised her eyes to the man’s face. What was he saying? She remembered the ambulance, and she remembered carrying the man out. He had been the only one. They had searched the other bed for any sign of life, but had found only a mass of blood and dirt.
“You did not speak,” she said in a low voice. “No one spoke.”
“No—” said the soldier. “Not in English. Not in German. I had no lips, of course. No tongue. I was nothing anymore but a few clods of blood-soaked clay, falling to pieces even as you looked at me, losing all form, unable to cohere—”
“You were on the stretcher,” said Lotte Heine. “I helped to bring you here.”
“No,” he said. “It was the Thing you bore away. It was the Thing you washed and sponged. It was the Thing you bandaged and dressed, and the Thing you laid in this bed—”
Lotte Heine looked at the soldier, watched the shadows on his face. A chill ran through her body, from her temples to her weary knees.
“And I was left behind. My soul, myself, whatever it would please you to call it. But as you threw open the canvas of the ambulance, I was already whirling up into the sky—blown by a cold breeze, unmoored, unstuck, my final mortal thoughts bubbling away as my consciousness effervesced into a million individual atoms—each one alone too small to sustain an idea or an identity or an id—then scattering, scattering, scattering to the winds—
“And below me, that Thing, with my name and my body in the hospital bed—
“To be sent home, to be sent home! Do you hear me, Großmutter? To be sent to my home! To my wife and my daughters and my Indiana farm—”
Lotte Heine suddenly leapt up, grabbing hold of the man’s face, one clammy cheek in each of her palms. He did not look up at her, but instead lay inert in her hands, as if indifferent to her touch.
She looked down at the man in the hospital bed, her eyes stinging with tears—sick with exhaustion and pity and fear. It had been the desperate way he had said those words that had pricked her. My wife and my daughters!
In his desperation, he had somehow convinced her! Yes, she could believe he was a Thing then—could taste the mud in his mouth, the tang of hatred on his tongue. Gott, it sent a sickness through her! How could she not act? How could she not attempt to wring out the man from the Thing?
“Stop!” she hissed, squeezing his shoulders, unmindful of his strength or weakness. “Stop! I’ll do it! For the sake of your wife and your daughters, I will do it! I will make you a man again—”
He lay looking at her for a long time, his eyes hooded in darkness as he regarded her. Then the curl of a sneer rippled along his lip as he turned his face away bitterly.
“Heartless woman!” he muttered. “You will do it for another woman, to save her from the darkness that holds me. But you will not do it for my own sake. All right! What matter! Who cares for your sympathy? So long as it will be done!”
The soldier turned back to face her, his eyes again resting on her lacrimarium, the dark tears already rising to his lids, blotting out the whites of his eyes. And regret already rising in Lotte Heine’s heart—
Fear already rising along with it—
Too much, too much! It will be too much! She could not swallow all this bitter draught— She could not bear it for him—Could not—
But she could not leave him either.
• • •
She returned to her habits, mopping and washing in the houses of the wealthy in the cold mornings, then eating a bite of bread and cheese, or a baked potato in the winter, them home to her own house in the evenings where there was always piecework to be done.
On Sundays, Lotte Heine went as always to Sankt Monika Kirche. She stood and sat and kneeled in the back, according to the forms of the Mass. She listened to the prayers and the readings from Scripture. She let her mind wander when the old German priest extemporized his sermons from the pulpit, his voice echoing throughout the church, the words overlapping and reverberating into syllables that had the shape and sound of language, but none of the sense.
Then afterwards, in the chapel at the back, she lit a candle for her own soul. But where once she would have lit candles as well for her husband and father and grandfather, she now left those wicks to lie black and cold against the wax.
All of them, doubtless, were suffering still in the torments of purgatory. All of them, doubtless, were in need of prayers. In need of kindness and compassion. She might easily have added all the hundreds of soldiers she had cared for during the war to their company as well, wherever they were in the world now: back in their own farms and cities, or perhaps in California, or Alaska, or at the bottom of the ocean for all she knew.
They each had followed their own roads. Each one had reached his own destination, his own purgatory, either in this world or the next. And as far as Lotte Heine was concerned, she had washed her hands of them all. They had come and now they had gone. And if they didn’t like where they now found themselves, then they could get themselves out if they liked, with whatever centuries of prayer and penance God saw fit to require of them.
As she stood before the single sputtering candle, Lotte Heine allowed her eyes to rest upon the icon of Sankt Monika that hung in the chapel. It was bad work, poorly done. A shame to have it in the church. But it reminded Lotte Heine all the same how she had thrown her kindness and compassion away, all through her life, on a succession of worthless men.
There would be no canonization for Lotte Heine, to be sure. For Sankt Monika, yes: she who also had cried and prayed and toiled. Indeed, it had been her agony and entreaties on behalf of her seemingly lost son, Sankt Augustine, that she had ultimately been glorified for.
Yes, thought Lotte Heine bitterly. If only her grandfather had been a great man, instead of a common laborer, then perhaps her grandmother would also be a saint now. And if she, Lotte Heine, had given her own patience to some better man—a man! always a man!—then she might look forward to the same. But since she had wept and sacrificed only for ordinary men who failed to rise above their selfish natures, she could expect no thanks, no reward. Bah! What a parade of ingrates she had known all her life. No more! Never again!
Turning to leave, Lotte Heine suddenly drew up sharply. A woman was blocking her way. Young, it seemed, though it was hard to tell under the habit that was pinned tightly to her skull, the folds of black hanging down to her shoulders and beyond.
“Won’t you leave something for the order, Großmutter?”
Lotte Heine stood a moment, staring the nun down. She had seen them before at Mass, of course, their identical costumes filling an entire section of the church. Inside their habits, they seemed to be nuns of all types: old, young, fat, robust. But all of them red-faced in health! That felt like an obscenity to Lotte Heine. Shouldn’t a nun be hungrier and angrier and harder worked than she? Shouldn’t a nun have to suffer in life?
“I think not,” answered Lotte Heine brusquely. She did not care to pretend that she had paid for the candle. “I will not leave anything.”
“No?” The nun’s eyes were staring at her, imploring now, with an unsettling intensity. “But every week I see you light a candle, yet I have never seen you leave a single thing.”
“And you won’t,” choked Lotte Heine, surprised and ashamed to feel something like a sob gathering in her breast. She swallowed it down and spoke again, pressing one hand against her breast as she did so. The hard points of the black beads still embedded all through her flesh pressed back and gave her courage. “Not a single copper penny you’ll get from me, though I live another fifty years.”
“But it’s not a penny that I want from you.”
At that, Lotte Heine looked incredulously at what the nun had taken up from the small chapel altar, at what the nun was now pressing toward her. It was a battered silver cup, a larger version of her own lacrimarium. The black beads in her breast were burning now, her nerves tingling from her fingertips to her temples.
She had grown used to them, she had thought. Since that night in the hospital, with the soldier from the ambulance, they had stopped dissolving and had seemed fixed in place. They had simply laid there, under her skin, unmoving and unchanging, as if turned to stone. They had become, she thought, hers to bear forever.
But now this nun held out a cup for her—!
Lotte Heine shook her head. “You’re too late. I do not cry anymore.” Yet, even as she spoke, there was a quaver in her voice and a prickle at the corner of her eyes. Expectantly, the nun thrust out the cup. But that was all: a quaver and a prickle, and nothing more. Lotte Heine blinked her eyes. The urge to cry had dried up again. “I told you. You’ll get no coins from me, and no tears either.”
The nun smiled and lowered the cup, placing a hand on Lotte Heine’s arm. “Not today, perhaps. But if you try, every week, then perhaps…”
“Why should you want them?” asked Lotte Heine bitterly. “Have you not enough hardship, that you must drink of mine? If it’s salt you crave, there are pleasanter ways to get it. This way, you’ll only end like me.”
The nun shook her head and motioned toward the door of the chapel. “Not me. Not alone.” Behind her, at the door, Lotte Heine could suddenly see more clustering heads, just outside the chapel. “Yes, today I will drink. But next week, Sister Agnes. The week after, Sister Catherine. Then Sister Agatha, then Sister Magdalene. There are so many of us, all of us ready to do it, Großmutter!”
And suddenly something loosed inside Lotte Heine. She wanted to ask exactly how many there were. She wanted to hear each of their names, the entire litany of compassion. Alone! She had always been so alone, ever since her own grandmother had passed away. Always she had done this work in darkness and isolation, with the windows of her lantern shuttered, while the ones she ministered to slept unawares.
Yet here, it was different. So different! Why had she never imagined there could be another way?
And before she understood what was happening, the silver cup was held up toward her face again. Black tears rolled out of her eyes. One, two, three, four, five… As they fell trembling into the cup, the nun smiled.
Lotte Heine pressed her hands against her breast again. The black beads still lay there, under her skin. But in one spot, perhaps, they were smaller. Yes! Here, just below her left clavicle, Lotte Heine could feel a new gap: a smooth space where an icy stone had used to sit. She rubbed the spot again and again, amazed to feel nothing but skin and flesh under her fingertip.
Without another word, the nun withdrew the cup and carried it out of the chapel. Lotte Heine felt a surge inside herself: a desire to run after her, to call out. To ask her name. But Lotte Heine was too shy and too confused. She only walked to the door of the chapel herself, and peered out through the crack into the church.
She could see the nuns beyond, arranged in the pews for their midday prayers. As they awaited the chiming of the hour, they passed the cup from hand to hand, each one sipping, each one drinking. And when the chapel door began to close, about to shut out the scene, Lotte Heine reached out with one hand and stopped it.
There she stood, a while longer, before she left for her own house. There she stood, a while longer, before she went home alone.
© 2020 by M. Bennardo, all rights reserved