’No man should yield to temptation without a struggle.’
(Private Lessons in the Cultivation of Sex Force, Anonymous, 1913)
January 1866, New Bedford, Massachusetts
Jacob could remember having the feeling of desire, but desire itself seemed to have left him. The butter biscuits that Samantha was loading onto the small, gold-rimmed plate might just as well be cardboard discs for all they appealed to him. She added a couple of sugared ginger slices and a caramel, and then handed him the plate.
‘I know you’ll like these little ginger bites,’ she said with a smile. ‘But tell me what you think of the caramel. I had a box sent from New York.’
The thick coating of sparkling sugar on the ginger slices made his stomach tighten. He put the plate on the little wicker table beside him, next to his untouched cup of tea.
‘Is your rug new?’ he asked.
‘Do you like it? The old one had been stretched so many times that I couldn’t even tack it down any longer.’
She’d redecorated since he was last here. Everything was gold and pink, or else white. Even the two slender maple trees outside the window, their branches muscled with snow, matched her color scheme. But had the room always been so crowded? All these hanging lamps and table lamps, pearly pink vases with dried flowers or pussy willows, a dozen framed watercolors on the wall, and miniature busts of German or Russian composers facing out on the bookshelves? He was hemmed in by the bric-a-brac, a feeling he never remembered experiencing here before.
‘Your parlor feels very . . .’
His body jerked at a noise – the coal fire had shifted, and a couple of sparks ticked loudly up the chimney like gunshots. He glanced at Samantha but fortunately she hadn’t noticed his jumpy reaction. She was looking around the room with a pleased expression.
‘Cozy,’ she said.
Cozy. All right. He felt the tremor in his thigh start up and he flattened his palm on his leg to hide it. His teeth felt like tombstones in his dry mouth but he didn’t dare try to take a sip of his tea because his hand had begun to shake, too.
‘Now Jackie; you must tell me everything!’ Samantha said. Alone, she always called him Jackie, just as his cousin Walter had. It was the name Jacob’s mother had called him.
‘I kept expecting you to write! And where’s your little bride, why hasn’t she come with you? I sent her a lovely note congratulating the both of you, but she never replied.’
He hesitated only a moment. ‘She’s gone.’
A look of horror. ‘What!’
‘No,’ he said quickly, realizing how that sounded. ‘I don’t mean, she isn’t . . . She just left. She left me.’
‘She left you?’ Samantha stared at him. ‘When? Why?’
He did not gloss over the timing. ‘Immediately. The next day. In Lark’s Eye.’
‘You don’t mean the very day after your wedding?’
‘But that was months and months ago! Oh, Jackie.’ Samantha set her plate down on the table, leaned forward, and took Jacob’s hand.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said, though he didn’t pull his hand away. ‘Marriage is a cage. I’m better off out of it.’
He’d been telling himself this for months; he’d even said the same, more or less, to Mrs. Tenney when she came up to Boston to see him. By then his tumult of feelings had settled into a dull, smoldering anger. Marriage was a cage. Just like his father always said. And Jacob had had enough of cages to last a lifetime.
Mrs. Tenney had looked at him sadly. ‘You’re hurt and angry. But don’t worry, we’ll find her. I’ve been writing people I know. Discreetly.’
She was right; he was hurt and angry. But the fact was, his hurt and anger had taken him in another direction – he didn’t want to find her. He didn’t want to look.
The coals shifted again, and Samantha squeezed his fingers. ‘Well, I thought there was something. Look at you. You’re not yourself. Wearing those old trousers, and who is seeing to your shoes? Have you any idea where she went?’
He let out a long breath. Tried to steady his nerves. ‘She wanted to study medicine, that’s all I know.’
‘Of course! We talked about books at that awful dinner party, oh I’ll never forget those dishes of herring!’ Her mouth twisted itself back into a frown; she almost laughed. Jacob was surprised. Perhaps he didn’t look as bad as he felt, in spite of his scuffed shoes?
‘I haven’t, I’m not myself,’ he began, but Samantha interrupted.
‘Of course not. Jackie, you must look for her! You must find her. She’s your wife.’ Her hand was still on top of his.
‘You’re wrong. I don’t have to find her,’ Jacob said. ‘I’m not going to look.’
‘But you’re ill over it! I can see that you are ill.’
‘It’s not that . . . it’s not her, I mean.’ He realized that each of them was being careful not to call Vita by her name. ‘It’s not Vita,’ he said firmly. ‘It’s. . . it’s the other thing.’
‘What other thing?’
‘What war? Oh, you mean the old war?’
The old war! This was going about as badly as it could go. Samantha took her hand from his and sat back. A sharp expression came into her eyes.
‘It’s come back to me – I can’t let go of it. It’s making me ill. I can’t get away from it.’ His voice had risen pathetically. Well, that’s why he was here, wasn’t it? He had to speak of it, no matter how he sounded.
‘You mean memories of battle and so forth?’
‘Mostly the prison. Camp Sumter. In Andersonville.’
‘O-oh.’ She pursed her lips, studying him. ‘Well, yes,’ she said slowly, nodding her head, ‘that was very bad. Everyone is talking about Andersonville. That, and everything else related to the war. Almost a year later and it’s still all people can talk about. It’s all so . . . Oh, Jackie. I can see how it might be difficult for you.’ She leaned forward and took his hand again, clasping it with both of her own, but he sensed that she had just stopped herself from saying, It’s all so tiresome.
‘You must simply stop getting the newspapers for a while,’ she told him. He could smell her warm breath, stale from the biscuits. ‘A complete break.’ She leaned back again, as if it had all been sorted.
‘I haven’t. I mean, I don’t read them, not for weeks. It doesn’t help.’
‘Well then, you must simply make yourself think of other things!’
‘I thought that maybe, if I stayed with you a while, I might be able to shake it. You sometimes take in boarders, don’t you? I could board here.’
Samantha drew back her chin. He noticed how sharply her chiseled cheekbones contrasted with the soft plush velvet of the armchair.
‘I haven’t taken in boarders since Walter’s last block of railroad stocks came to term.’
‘I have money . . .’ He was thinking of Vita’s dowry. ‘I could take you to plays, we could go into Boston at night. Go to restaurants. I could help you live well.’
‘I already live well.’
‘Well then, live better.’
‘No,’ Samantha said. The word was like a rock. ‘That won’t do, Jacob, I’m afraid. You can’t come here.’
‘Why?’ He hated himself for sounding so pitiful – he could see her face harden as they spoke. He would have done better had he not mentioned prison camp. The conversation had gotten away from him, and now he couldn’t remember what else he’d planned to say.
‘People will talk,’ she said.
‘About a boarder? But you’ve had boarders before.’
She shrugged. It still happens.
‘Then we’ll go away. Find someplace new.’
‘In truth, I like where I live. I like it very much.’
‘In truth,’ Jacob said, mocking her, ‘you don’t want to help me.’
‘Jacob, it’s not that. Don’t think that. I can’t help you. That’s all.’
That’s all. His hand began to shake again but he did nothing to hide it, and he watched her look down, take note of the tremor, and look away.
‘Well?’ he asked. It had been a fool’s dream to come here.
She paused. ‘I don’t know what else to suggest. Perhaps a doctor?’
The irony didn’t escape him. ‘Doctors are selfish fools,’ he said.
He walked back through the slushy streets to the station, ignoring the passing cabs. The train was already at the platform when he arrived and he chose a seat in one of the forward coaches, where he could smoke. A group of soldiers jumped up into the car just as they were beginning to push off; they swayed with the car’s jerky movements and fell on each other as they sat down, laughing. One of them brought out a square whiskey bottle and, without the inconvenience of glasses, the bottle was passed from mouth to mouth.
The last soldier in line offered the bottle to Jacob. It was wet at the neck and smelled of strong home brewing but Jacob took a pull anyway, feeling the peppery liquid coat his mouth. The soldiers were loud and rowdy, one or two starting songs that the others either took up or booed down. An older man wearing a glossy black hat like brushed cat fur took the opportunity to change cars at the next stop.
Jacob didn’t mind them. Their noise was a distraction. He stared out the window at the passing fields, crusty with old snow, and wondered why he ever imagined Samantha would take him in. It was a battle doomed from the start. Moreover he had delayed his retreat too long, and now he felt too tired and defeated to do anything except brood on topics best avoided – Vita, or the war. His stomach rumbled; he wished now he’d eaten one of those biscuits.
When he’d been captured in the war, it was also because he’d been hungry. This was in Tennessee, near Dandridge, and his regiment was both fending off Confederate gunfire and retreating, although the other side was also retreating. Another blunder by Union commanders – who couldn’t believe an enemy was ceding ground if any bullets were flying – and another successful deception by the Johnny Rebs, as the Union soldiers called them.
The war, which was supposed to last only a few months, just kept going on and on. Two years. Three years. Rumor had it that the rebels had begun using poisoned bullets, and at the time Jacob could well believe it; he’d seen one man’s hand, merely scraped by a musket ball, swell to twice its size and turn black and blue overnight.
It began to rain during their skirmish near Dandridge, and it continued to rain for three days while they retreated. Everyone was hungry and cold. On the third night Jacob and a few mates decided to get off the road and sleep in an abandoned schoolhouse, where it was drier. When they woke up it was no longer raining, but they discovered that the command had left them behind. Still, there were other Federal units around, so they decided to eat some breakfast before looking for their own men again. A half an hour later when they left the schoolhouse they found a group of six Confederate soldiers outside with their pistols raised, commanding them to halt.
As soon as he saw the men in their ill-fitting gray uniforms, Jacob was filled with the irrational desire to turn back time and make different choices, a physical urge he felt as truly as a poisoned bullet. Within minutes everything of value was taken from him: gun, haversack, overcoat, blanket, boots. He and the other prisoners spent the night in a tobacco warehouse, where he was able to buy back his blanket with the fake greenback money he’d hidden in the lining of his army cap. It was a regular, government-issue wool blanket, brown with a darker brown stripe, very worn, stinking of gunpowder and fetid mud, but it saved his life.
After another day’s march he and the other prisoners were loaded onto train cars, and Jacob huddled under his blanket, trying to pass unnoticed, waiting for the chance to slip out. But the boxcar doors were fastened on the outside and there were no windows, only slits in the siding. Guards sat in each corner of the car near the water barrels, which were only half full. Six days later they were unloaded at midnight and marched by torchlight to the prison camp – an enormous palisade of huge, squared logs standing upright in the ground, maybe thirty feet high.
At first, when the gates opened and they were pushed inside, Jacob could only make out piles of rags scattered on the ground. There was no moon and it was hard to see even with the low torches the guards carried, which smelled strongly of pinesap. But when he heard a groan Jacob realized these were men, not rags. There were no tents in sight, and the ground was strewn with excrement. Later, in the daylight, the excrement and dirt would glitter with scurrying lice. A smell of rotting meat came at him as he stood there – the smell of death. Men were buried once a day in shallow pits of mud just outside the palisade, and corpses were stacked against the walls until the time came to bury them.
If only I hadn’t suggested a hot breakfast, Jacob thought. If only I hadn’t gone into that schoolhouse. If only I hadn’t enlisted. But if wishes were horses, as his mother used to say, then beggars would ride.
‘Welcome to hell,’ a prison guard said, shoving him hard.
Jacob had felt the same urgent desire to turn back time the morning after his wedding day, although at first, waking up alone in the hotel bed, he hadn’t been worried. Vita probably went downstairs to ask the clerk about trains, he thought, or she was conferring with her sister, or seeing about breakfast. It wasn’t until the hotel maid came in with a basin of hot water and a stack of small, clean towels and left again, closing the door softly behind her, that Jacob saw the note:
I’ve changed my mind. I’ve left. You can have the money. V.
The note was held in place under a clear bottle of violet water on the washstand; he had already begun to lather his cheeks for a shave when he spotted it. He wiped the soap from his face with one of the clean towels and read it again.
I’ve changed my mind. I’ve left.
He could hear the maid rap on a door down the hall, ‘Hot water, sir,’ and also a pounding from outside as if men were working on the hotel’s foundation, breaking a piece off or adding something new.
I’ve changed my mind? What did that mean? He was standing in his nightshirt and a dressing gown hastily put on for the maid, though he hadn’t tied the belt properly and it was now hanging open. Something tugged at the base of his neck as though that was the spot where rational thought began; later he would feel nauseous, and then angry, and then incredulous, and then angry again. At the moment he was simply dumbfounded. He stood in his open dressing gown holding the heavy, cream-colored paper with her new initials – VTC – in his damp hand while outside the window a bird sang out: glee, glee, glee. Not a warning, but an aside.
While he dressed he kept picking up the note to read it again but it was no use, he could not understand it. He needed to talk to someone. He fastened his tiepin with some difficulty – his right hand had already begun to tremble – and went downstairs. From the boy at the front desk he learned that Amelia and Holland had left already on the early train.
‘Will you and your wife be breakfasting with us? Would you like a table by the window?’ the boy asked.
Jacob looked into the dining room, the room where only yesterday they had eaten their wedding meal, now set for breakfast. An older man sat with his wife at a table near the door, both of them wearing traveling clothes. A silver-plated rack of toast stood on the table between them. Neither one looked at the other, or spoke.
‘Sir?’ The desk clerk was so young that his voice cracked, and his earnest expression reminded Jacob a little of his brother Benjy. He resisted the impulse to take Vita’s note from his pocket to read yet again; or to show it to the boy and ask his advice. He looked down at his hands as though to pin them in place and saw with a shock that the left one was black and blue, grotesquely large, as though he had been struck by one of the poisoned bullets – a myth, the papers were saying now. He lifted his hand quickly but as it came into the light it shrank and his fingers resumed their natural color.
The clerk was still waiting for an answer. Jacob felt something loosen and crack open. Where was she? What should he do? He had the strangest sensation that the air inside him was slowly spilling out. He must somehow turn back time. But turn it back to when?
‘My wife had to take the early train,’ he told the boy, ‘so it will just be myself for breakfast.’ He paused, wanting to say more. ‘A window will be fine.’
He left for Boston that afternoon without telling anyone about Vita, and he spent the last week of September and all of October waiting for her to write or appear. He joined a reading club, then a philosophy club, and then a botany club, but after the first meeting of each one he never went to another. The newspaper boy on the corner, the man who ran the cigar shop, and the woman who came to cook and clean, Mrs. Humphrey – these were the only people he spoke to. Although he did his exercises faithfully his tremors grew worse, and at night his dreams became furious battles with death. He was hung, he was chased, he was shot. Every night.
‘Shall I change the sheets today, sir?’ Mrs. Humphrey regularly asked. They quickly turned sour from waking up so often in a cold sweat. Also he was losing weight; his belt had become a necessity. ‘My sister can cut out some new clothes for you, if you’ve no mind to go to a tailor,’ Mrs. Humphrey told him. ‘She lives right near.’ That suited him, though it meant one more person to talk to.
Pride kept him from writing Mrs. Tenney until November. But it turned out she already knew; Vita had sent her a note soon after she left. Jacob and Mrs. Tenney arranged to meet to discuss it; she told her husband she wanted to go into Boston to shop. Apparently Dr. Tenney wasn’t in on the secret.
‘My husband can’t know,’ she’d said. They were sitting at a black iron-wrought table at the station restaurant, and she leaned forward to put her gloved hand on top of Jacob’s. ‘He’s just starting to – to get control of his emotions. This would set him back. And even if it didn’t, he would probably make all sorts of trouble. I think we should try to quietly look for her on our own.’
‘Why would she do such a thing?’ Jacob asked heatedly, drawing his hand away. He was thinking: to me.
‘I honestly don’t know. She’s always been . . .’ The black wrought-iron chair tilted on its uneven legs as she sat back to consider. Jacob waited. Rash, he thought. Strong-willed. Selfish.
‘Fearful,’ Mrs. Tenney said.
‘Fearful?’ He almost laughed.
‘Not of a new challenge, but fearful of being, oh I don’t know. Like everyone else. You two had an agreement, isn’t that right? She was to study medicine? And you approved?’
‘Then I don’t understand it.’
Had Vita planned to bolt all along? He was angry, but he also couldn’t shake the worry that it was somehow his fault. But it wasn’t his fault. He couldn’t very well find a preceptor in Boston when he was living in Lark’s Eye; he didn’t know why she kept pressing him on that. Or was it the barrel glue? Was he wrong to suggest working together? If so, she was selfish and cruel.
He wanted to think the worst of her. Or at least part of him wanted to. The angry part.
Only last spring he thought that all he wanted in the world was enough money to make Caleb’s final plans a reality – Caleb, to whom he owed his life! Then Vita came along with her penetrating stares, her soft mouth, her humor, her intensity. A lingering scent of vanilla and lead pencils. Always with a book in her pocket. She was interested in his opinions but had opinions of her own, too. Maybe that’s why he thought of a partnership.
Anyway now Jacob no longer believed he could gin up a model. He’d tried, in October, to work in the little shack of a workshop that he’d rented outside the city, only a couple of train stops past Boston. But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t be alone. On his very first visit his throat closed up and he started to panic. It felt like a prison.
So instead he just went once a week to check that the locks still functioned, that no vermin had gotten inside, and that the roof wasn’t leaking. Then he re-locked the door and caught a train home. He had leased it (foolishly, as it turned out now) for a full six months.
He couldn’t be by himself all day, and he couldn’t work with a stranger. What was left for him? Going to see Samantha had been his last, desperate resort. But he was off the mark on that one, too.
By the time the train pulled into the Boston station it was so dark that Jacob could see only his own reflection in the window. The soldiers, who’d been singing ‘Danny Boy’ as the train clamored to a stop, were still struggling into their overcoats when Jacob stepped down onto the platform.
All he wanted now was to get home quickly and eat the dinner Mrs. Humphrey had left for him. But as he walked among the throng of people toward the exit, he suddenly smelled the strong scent of vanilla.
He stopped abruptly and looked at the women walking by. For a moment he thought, She’s here! His heart felt warm and soft; his anger vanished. On their wedding night he’d wrapped himself in this scent, burying his nose in the nook between her shoulder and neck. She’d flattened her palms against his back, and they’d found their way together so naturally, so perfectly. Sometimes when he woke in the morning even now, just for a moment, he let himself imagine that she was lying next to him.
The smell of vanilla vanished. Maybe it was only a trick of the senses.
He noticed an old, disheveled soldier – still wearing his regulation cap and coat – sitting on a station bench watching him. He was as different as could be from the soldiers on the train. His skinny neck seemed to be on its own plane, pushing his head out unnaturally, and his cracked, unlaced boots yawned open. As Jacob approached, the man uncurled his fingers to reveal lines of oily grime on the palm of his hand. Close up, he wasn’t as old as Jacob first thought. Misery drifted from him like a swamp fog.
You won’t survive alone, Jacob wanted to tell him as he fished in his pocket for a coin. Even out here, in peacetime, you won’t survive it.
’When I see a girl under twelve with a book in her hand, I always feel an inclination to throw it at her head.’
(Sir Benjamin Brodie, as quoted in Gaillard’s Medical Journal, 1886)
January 1866, Cleveland, Ohio
Vita pressed her fingertips against the stuffed rectangle of cushion on the chair arms to keep her concentration while Mrs. McDove cut into the cake. The heart functions to circulate the blood, she recited inwardly; the right side of the heart with venous blood, and the left side with arterial blood.
She’d wanted to stay up in her bedroom and study, but Mrs. McDove fairly commanded her to the parlor, it being a holiday – Old Christmas Day, which some called Twelfth Night. Up and down the street families were lighting bonfires in the slushy two-week-old snow and burning evergreens to ensure prosperity in the coming year. Even Mrs. McDove had built a small fire at the end of her yard, though by this time it was thoroughly doused. She wore a sprig of mistletoe pinned to her collar for luck.
‘And here you are, Mrs. Culhane,’ she said to Vita, handing her a piece of the apple cake. She picked up a small white pitcher. ‘Cream over it?’
Mr. Nowicki, a thin cabinetmaker from Warsaw, also came down to celebrate the holiday. He was a kind, slightly reticent man who wore rimless glasses and played whist every Monday evening at the Polish Club downtown. He’d come to Cleveland last year after the Polish Uprising, and he once showed Vita the long scar on his forearm where a Russian soldier had sliced through his shirt with a saber.
He smiled his thanks as he took a plate of cake.
‘And shall we indulge in a glass as well?’ Mrs. McDove asked them.
But just as she put her hand on the sherry decanter they heard the front door open, followed by the loud scraping of shoes and a dramatic cough. Reverend Simpers was announcing himself home.
Mrs. McDove took her hand off the sherry. The three listened without speaking, all of them no doubt hoping they might escape the reverend’s attention. But Mrs. McDove’s scruples got the better of her.
‘Oh, well, I suppose I should . . .’ and she went out to the hall to invite him in.
Mrs. McDove was short and plump with a very round head, and usually wore pale gray dresses, as befitting her name. She ran the house with Gracelin, her maid and cook, with an efficiency Vita admired. Mrs. McDove offered fair weekly rates that included breakfast; suppers and laundry were extras. She had a softness for sweets and dessert wine, which she was happy to share in exchange for some company.
Reverend Simpers, on the other hand, possessed only an artificial veneer of kindness. Tall, with thick blond hair that curled away from his forehead like the marbled tresses on a Greek statue, his looks alone commanded attention. He had broad shoulders, a thick chest, and muscular arms; it was his heart that kept him from the war. ‘It’s not all that it should be,’ he explained.
An understatement, Vita thought.
The two other lodgers – a pair of gentle and not quite impoverished sisters, the Misses Pickens – were out visiting an old school teacher. Their father had owned a toll road in Connecticut and they lived off his savings, supplementing their income by crocheting baby socks and making infant shoes out of broadcloth. They favored three-cornered shawls and liked to dress in matching outfits, and they carried peppermint drops in their purses for any child they encountered. They lived in a suite of rooms on the second floor, down the hall from Mrs. McDove and her son, while Mr. Nowicki and the reverend each had smaller rooms on the third floor. Vita lived in the attic.
‘Well, well,’ Reverend Simpers said as he stepped into the parlor behind Mrs. McDove. His gaze stopped at once on the three upturned sherry glasses. ‘Not drinking, surely, at this time of day?’
He had a way of making everyone feel miserable about themselves except for the elder Miss Pickens, who could not see past his beauty. Walking through the room with an air of ownership (like a buck in his forest, Vita thought, who had been looking forward to the sherry), he wove around the motley collection of chairs before selecting Mrs. McDove’s armchair to sit in, which was too small for him.
‘Please, reverend, you’ll be more comfortable here.’ Mrs. McDove tried to usher him into a larger chair, but he liked to discomfit others when he could.
Vita and Mr. Nowicki began eating their cake a little faster. Mrs. McDove turned the sherry glasses over, and then, as if that action meant nothing more than that she was tidying the room, she straightened the needlework portrait of her late husband, which hung on the wall.
‘Twelfth Night, is it?’ Reverend Simpers said as he stabbed at his cake with his fork tines. His manners were not as refined as his features. ‘A pagan holiday. Harmless, I suppose, but we should not make too much of it.’
He did not need to glance at the sherry decanter to make his meaning clear, although he did.
‘To be sure,’ Mrs. McDove said, her face reddening. ‘You’re quite right.’
‘I’ve been told that in Wales they believe seals take on human form on this day.’
‘Seals! My goodness.’
‘Have you ever seen a seal, Mrs. McDove?’
‘Well, now, let me see. You mean in the lake?’
‘Lake Erie? A seal in Lake Erie? Ha ha ha! I should think not.’ He watched Mrs. McDove’s cheeks flush a deeper pink before he turned to Vita. ‘Our kindly landlady wonders if she might have seen a seal in Lake Erie.’ His laughs, like all his laughs, pretended to be good-natured but was not. There was nothing Reverend Simpers liked better than catching people out.
Vita, who did not want to share in a joke at Mrs. McDove’s expense, resolved not to accept another piece of cake. Only five minutes ago the room had been a cozy respite with its glowing coal fire, its worn and comfortable chairs, and, in the back corner, Mrs. McDove’s collection of mirrors hanging from chains, jingling slightly when the air stirred. Through the long windows on either side of the fireplace Vita could see the city air full of smoke, which turned crimson in the late afternoon on account of the factory furnaces. The odors wafted through the thin walls of her attic bedroom, which overlooked the street, and sometimes woke her in the morning after the furnaces were relit for the day.
It was in the morning that she was most homesick for Lark’s Eye, for the smell of long, wet grass and salty wind. She missed her bedroom window seat, and Mrs. O.’s warm kitchen, and Sweetie nudging her ear. Of course, here she could skip supper entirely and study in her room past midnight. She could do whatever she wanted. Last night she placed a thin sheet of onion paper over a textbook illustration charting the course of the brachial artery, and when she finished tracing it she tacked the copy above her desk next to her other drawings: the blood vessels of the lungs, the contours of digestive organs, and the course of the femoral artery down the thigh. The human body was so complex, so neatly compact, bone and vein and muscle tissue interlayered but also distinct. She liked to stand in front of her desk in the mornings and admire the drawings. The beauty of the machinery.
But there was no Gemma to talk to, and no Mitty, and no Sweetie. Instead of sand dunes there were trees, and instead of hills there were long brick factory chimneys. Even the water tasted different here.
She tried not to think about Jacob.
‘And what has our little doctor been doing today?’ Reverend Simpers asked, landing on Vita as his next victim.
He had white, pointed teeth, like a cat’s. If she used vocabulary he didn’t know, he smiled at her as though she were a precocious yet misguided child.
‘I’ve been studying arterial blood flow.’
When Vita first moved into the house, she tried to make her case as a war widow in need of employment. ‘My father is a country doctor,’ she explained, ‘so it feels quite natural.’ But the reverend made no secret of his disapproval.
‘In my opinion,’ he liked to say, ‘women can enter any profession they wish just as soon as they learn the right way to get off a streetcar.’ He always attacked with a smile on his face.
But before the reverend could form his assault on her there was a banging from the hallway and Mrs. McDove’s son Stewart – Soot – came into the room, knocking his shoes on the bottom of the door. He was eight years old but carried himself like the man of the house.
‘Hello, my young sir,’ Mr. Nowicki said, smiling gently. ‘Out looking at the bonfires?’
‘Oh, Soot, my precious, mind your feet,’ Mrs. McDove scolded.
Soot paid his mother no attention but made his way straight to Vita. ‘Did you bring your book down with you?’
‘You don’t have to do your learning today,’ Mrs. McDove told him. ‘It’s a holiday.’
Vita was giving Soot lessons as part of her rent. When he did well she let him look at her anatomy book as a reward; Soot loved its gruesomely vivid illustrations.
Reverend Simpers cleared his throat. ‘Stewart, why don’t you tell us what Christian deeds you’ve been up to today?’
Soot ignored him. He lifted his foot and knocked his heel a few times.
‘Won’t you go get your slippers on?’ Mrs. McDove asked. ‘My floor will thank you for it.’
‘No it won’t! Floors don’t have feelings. Or a mouth.’
Vita and Mr. Nowicki looked at each other and smiled. Soot was a favorite with all the lodgers except Reverend Simpers, who resented any distraction away from himself. He caught their smile and forced a laugh.
‘Well! I see you do have a brain in that pumpkin shell, don’t you?’
‘He’s a smart boy,’ Mr. Nowicki said in his soft, melancholy voice.
The reverend must have taken this as a criticism of his comment, for he said more forcefully, ‘Pumpkin shell. That’s what we call a head like that.’
Mrs. McDove held out a hand to her son. ‘Well, come along then and give your mother a kiss.’
But instead Soot went to the window to look out at the neighbors’ bonfires. ‘Why do we have feelings, anyway?’ he asked after a moment.
‘Why, to tell us right from wrong, of course!’ Reverend Simpers boomed importantly.
Soot didn’t reply. Somehow it was obvious from his back that he didn’t care for that answer.
‘If we didn’t feel pain from a fire,’ Vita said, ‘we wouldn’t draw our hand back from it.’
‘You saying pain keeps us alive?’ Soot asked.
She hadn’t thought of it that way. She glanced at Mr. Nowicki, who had been beaten nearly to death by the same Russian soldier who sliced up his arm.
‘It’s good we have a brain to remind us what can hurt,’ Mr. Nowicki told Soot, ‘so we don’t make the same mistake again. To remember the feeling of pain, that is what helps us.’
‘What about heart feelings?’
‘Heart feelings!’ The reverend laughed. ‘My little man, you don’t have to worry about that, not for years.’
As if children don’t have strong feelings, Vita thought. Soot was facing her now, his young soft face working hard to look serious. It was a serious question. The heart functions to circulate the blood, she thought. She felt sorry for the elder Miss Pickens, who was in love with Reverend Simpers; he knew she was in love with him and he played with her as though she had a chance. Mr. Nowicki had been in love with a young woman lost in the insurrection – that was how he put it to Vita – and Mrs. McDove’s husband had died in a mill accident when Soot was a baby. Even the younger Miss Pickens had lost someone, a fiancé who’d been killed in the first year of the war.
What about heart feelings, Vita wondered? Jacob’s warm breath came back to her, his dark eyes, the mole near his eyelid, the way he watched her closely when she spoke. It had been nearly four months since she’d left him in Lark’s Eye. She didn’t want to think about him, but she did.
She set her fork down on her empty plate. ‘That’s something else,’ she said.
Her plan was to finish reading Quincy’s Dispensatory while it was still light out, but as she was going up to her room she heard a knock on the front door.
‘Why, Dr. Boutwell,’ Mrs. McDove said. ‘Come in, come in – there, let’s get you out of the wind. I’ll fetch Mrs. Culhane.’
Dr. Boutwell, Vita’s preceptor, sometimes came to fetch her if he was on his way to visit a patient at home. Part of your training, he explained.
‘A young girl with a toothache,’ he told Vita as she fetched her cloak. ‘Might be infected. Her mother sent me a note.’
He looked the part of a doctor in his long, fitted gray coat and matching brushed hat. He was a trim, compact man in his late forties with closely cropped black hair, a thin moustache like an upside-down U, high cheekbones and slanted almond-colored eyes. He carried his doctor’s bag in his left hand and a brass-topped cane – he had a weak ankle – in his right. Vita could see a couple of cigars wrapped in letter paper leaning out from his coat pocket; he handed these out to male patients after a difficult treatment. In the other pocket he kept a waxed bag of sugared almonds for children.
‘Never noticed the name of your rooming house before.’ He glanced at her. ‘Is that why you chose it?’
The name of it was The Frederick.
‘Yes,’ Vita said.
Dr. Boutwell had been Freddy’s closest friend in the army and the reason why Vita chose Cleveland – that and the fact the Cleveland Medical College admitted women as students as well as men. Vita remembered the letter he had written to her father about Freddy. Surely, she’d thought on the train leaving Lark’s Eye, he wouldn’t refuse to help his friend’s sister?
Outside, streams of lint-colored smoke curled up from the house chimneys, and passing horses wore blankets over their necks. Vita tried not to look down at the gutter, which was strewn with wet paper, potato peelings, and the glistening blue edges of spoiled meat. Garbage collection in the city was at best inconsistent; only that morning she had read in the newspaper a new ordinance against throwing dead cats in the street.
At the corner Vita noticed a group of soldiers lined up near the steps of the Methodist church, waiting for soup. All of them were ragged and hungry-looking. A few had sewn their coat sleeves closed to protect the stub of arm they had left, while others simply let their empty sleeves flap listlessly in the wind. A flag of the defeated, regardless of which side they fought for. Just as Vita and Dr. Boutwell were passing, the minister came out of the church doors; he smiled down at the two of them as though they shared something with him merely by their proximity, or maybe because they were still whole, whereas the soldiers lined up for soup were not.
She wondered where Jacob was now – in the little house he’d found for them in Boston? She still felt her breath catching in her throat when she went to the hall table after breakfast to look at the mail. Of course there was never a letter from him. How could there be? She knew that she was to blame, if there was blame. She’d panicked, that was the truth. But he didn’t believe in her, either – he didn’t think she could do it. And now she had a carefully arranged life, a proverbial house of cards. She couldn’t risk anything – anyone – dismantling that.
‘It’s just up ahead,’ Dr. Boutwell said.
Maybe he was living with Samantha. She tried not to imagine that.
They turned down a narrow street with identical wooden houses standing shoulder to shoulder. Two lines of bare, winter trees stretched their spindly branches over the road as if hoping and failing to grasp each other in the middle. For all that it was Twelfth Night, no one was lighting bonfires on this block, as there were no yards to speak of. Just houses and mud.
A young woman with smallpox scars on her cheeks opened the door. As she took their wraps she looked at Vita curiously but only said, ‘You can follow me up, if you please.’
In the small bedroom at the top of the stairs a girl was sitting up in bed, her eyes red-rimmed and swollen. She looked to be about eight or nine, Vita guessed. Her mother sat on a wooden kitchen chair beside her, holding a vinegary-smelling piece of bread against her daughter’s jaw.
‘Home remedy,’ Dr. Boutwell told Vita later. ‘Other times I’ve come in to find a patient with a mouth full of salt.’
Besides the bed, the room had a washstand and a long trunk covered by a fringed biscuit-colored shawl. The walls were painted white and there was a plain wooden cross hanging over the washstand in lieu of a mirror. There were no books or pictures, and only one window that looked out at the chipped roof shingles of the house next door, an arm’s length away.
The mother, standing up to give Dr. Boutwell her chair, thanked them for coming.
‘Of course. Toothache, is it?’ he said in his gentle voice as he sat down. ‘Oh my, that’s painful.’ He folded his hands together to show the girl that he was not going to touch her yet. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked her.
‘Elsie Ann Archer,’ she told him, trying not to move her mouth too much. She wore several knitted shawls over her nightdress.
‘Elsie Ann, what a pretty name. I’ve seen your neighbor, Mrs. Crocker, and she recommended me to your mother.’ He smiled at her. ‘So that means we’re not complete strangers. Now then, Elsie Ann – or do they call you just Elsie?’
‘Just Elsie,’ Elsie answered.
‘All right, Elsie. My assistant will look at your tooth first, and after that I’ll take a peek.’
Mrs. Archer looked around for the assistant. By now Vita was used to that. She pulled the washstand stool over to the other side of the bed and asked Elsie to open her mouth. A sour odor like a rotten egg exuded from her mouth when she did.
‘A little wider, please,’ Vita said. After Dr. Boutwell’s soft voice, her own seemed to crash through the room. Elsie’s mouth was small, with neat rows of white teeth resting on her pink gums like tiny wet pearls. Vita looked curiously at the line of necks and crowns, the sharp canines used to tear meat, the molars for crushing it. The mechanics of breaking down food starts here. She was most interested in the enamel, which was, she’d recently learned, even harder than bones.
She could see one tooth that was darker than the others. The gum tissue beneath it was swollen and inflamed.
‘Lower jaw,’ she said. ‘Left mandibular.’
Still with her mouth gaping open, Elsie’s eyes followed Dr. Boutwell as he leaned over to peer in himself.
‘Right, the second molar. Very good.’ Dr. Boutwell sat back. ‘You can close your mouth now, Elsie. Thank you.’
He told her they were going to have to take the tooth out, and that after that her pain would be over. ‘It’s a back tooth,’ he said, ‘so no one will see that it’s gone, even when you smile, and it’s a baby tooth, which means that another one will grow in its place. What do you think? Is that all right? Can we take it out for you?’
Elsie’s eyes filled with tears but she nodded. He was a gentle, thorough, considerate physician, and even new patients seemed to trust him.
‘It won’t hurt much. It will hurt a little, but not much. And we’ll be quick about it.’
Vita washed up while Dr. Boutwell instructed Mrs. Archer to make up a poultice for her daughter, writing out exactly what it should include. He asked her to boil some water as well and bring that up, too.
‘Now then,’ he said, turning to Vita after Mrs. Archer had gone downstairs. ‘Think you can do this?’
The poultice-making had been a ruse to get the mother away. Elsie looked over at Vita with such scared eyes that Vita felt she had to say, ‘Of course!’ right away, trying to convey utter confidence. But her heartbeat quickened. She’d watched Dr. Boutwell pull teeth a half a dozen times over the last few months, but she had never pulled one herself.
After she helped him organize the instruments, Vita sat down next to Elsie. Elsie stretched open her mouth again and closed her eyes as Dr. Boutwell handed Vita the small metal pincers. Vita clamped them on Elsie’s carious tooth.
She tried to imitate Dr. Boutwell’s gentle smile, but it felt like a grimace.
‘All right?’ she asked. Elsie’s scanty eyebrows went up and she closed her eyes. Inhaling, Vita gave the tooth a tug. Nothing. She tugged again, but the tooth didn’t budge. Elsie, her eyes still shut, whimpered softly.
‘Nice and strong,’ Dr. Boutwell instructed.
Vita tightened her grip on the pincers and yanked hard. A loud crunching noise came from the girl’s mouth.
‘Mm-aah,’ Elsie cried.
Vita pulled the pincers out. A white, bloodstained tooth with a long root was dangling from the instrument’s blunt blades along with, to her horror, a piece of gleaming white bone. I’ve broken off part of her jaw, she thought in a panic, and her stomach tilted and then constricted. Meanwhile Elsie’s mouth was running with blood. Dr. Boutwell handed Vita squares of white gauze and she began stuffing them into Elsie’s mouth.
‘Gently,’ Dr. Boutwell reminded her.
She told herself to slow down. She packed the gauze against Elsie’s gum, and when the gauze was soaked through she lifted it out with a pair of smaller pincers and packed in another pad. She lasted three rounds of this before she turned away and made for the washbasin, where she was sick.
‘That’s fine, I can finish up now,’ Dr. Boutwell said behind her in a calm voice. ‘Elsie, you were a brave girl and now it’s all done. You’re going to feel very much better after this. Tell me, do you rinse your mouth out every night before going to bed? Just nod or shake your head.’ He then proceeded to give her instructions for the care of her teeth.
Vita, wiping her sick away with her handkerchief, felt as if every bone in her body was made of tissue paper. Would Elsie’s jaw get infected? Would she die of gangrene? She was afraid to look at Dr. Boutwell.
‘You broke off the tooth socket, that’s all,’ he told her when they were back on the street. By this time it was fully dark out, and the trees on either side of the road looked like a line of skinny dark soldiers standing guard.
‘You mean that wasn’t a piece of her jawbone?’
‘Is that what you thought?’ Dr. Boutwell laughed, but not unkindly. ‘No, no, nothing like that. Only a bit of the socket. Don’t worry. You did fine.’
But she could not break free from the image of the tooth socket, the raw hole in Elsie’s mouth, the odor of rotted eggs. The first time she went on a patient visit with Dr. Boutwell it was to see a young boy with a broken arm, and as Dr. Boutwell was setting it Vita had to turn away to be sick. That had been in a tiny, hot bedroom that was more like a closet, and she told herself the closed space was the reason. But she was sick again when she watched Dr. Boutwell pull a ball bearing out of a man’s shoulder with a pair of needle-nosed pliers, and when he cleaned a grocer’s festering chest wound, and when together they examined a woman’s head lesion to find it crawling with tiny red insects.
‘You’ll get used to the sight of that,’ Dr. Boutwell told her each time.
Now he said, ‘Pulling a tooth takes a bit of practice,’ and then, when Vita said nothing, he patted her arm. ‘Next one will be easier.’
Mrs. McDove was in the hallway when Vita walked in. ‘Oh Mrs. Culhane, you’re home. Supper’s in ten minutes if you’re taking it.’
She had no money to pay for the meal but she heard herself say, ‘Thank you, yes.’ She was hungry and tired, and Mrs. McDove wouldn’t give her the bill until next week. She tugged off her cold gloves and scrunched her fingers to warm them.
‘Is that our little doctor back from her house call?’ Reverend Simpers called from the parlor. Before she could escape he came out, newspaper in hand. ‘So what was the terrible emergency you had to rush off to?’
He was so much larger than she was, and he liked to hover. Vita stepped back, trying to regain her own space. ‘I pulled a tooth.’
‘A tooth! Did you really? You pulled a tooth? My, my.’ He smiled at Mrs. McDove and then at Vita, enjoying himself. ‘All your months of training, and finally you can perform that delicate operation! You’ve learned at last to pull out instead of push in? Ha, ha!’
His laughter was over in two breaths, like the back and forth of a razor.
‘My old granny used to pull our teeth. Afterwards she gave us lumps of sugar to stop us howling. Perhaps you should take your lessons from her. I’m sure she would charge you much less than the doctor!’
Vita felt a familiar swirl of anger in her chest. ‘And I’m sure she didn’t know the first thing about teeth or anything else,’ she snapped.
This was just what he was hoping for.
‘Oh now, don’t be angry, Mrs. Culhane. I was merely making a joke! My, you do have a temper, don’t you?’ He shook his head. ‘I’m not sure you have the patience to be a doctor. Or the self-control, or the discipline. All traits that a woman naturally lacks. Am I right, Mrs. McDove? Can you imagine a woman commanding a ship?’
The ventricles, after expelling blood into the arteries, immediately begin to dilate, Vita recited to herself, trying to keep from saying anything more. His leap from doctors to ship captains had so many logical discrepancies that she didn’t know where to begin, but battling him would only result in further insults – she had been on this roundabout before. She couldn’t let his prejudices stop her, just as she couldn’t let her father’s prejudices stop her. After she finished Quincy’s Dispensatory, she wanted to organize her reading for next week. Tomorrow she’d have to sell Aunt Norbert’s second gold coin. Soon, before she was out of funds completely, she needed to write the Cleveland Medical College requesting an interview, and then she would probably need to find another job – more tutoring? – to support her while she attended classes.
‘Off to study up on how to pull a splinter from a fingertip?’ Reverend Simpers asked as she turned to go upstairs. She didn’t have to look at him, she could practically hear his smug smile. She forced herself to take the stairs slowly, to ignore his taunts. But when she was in her own room at last with the door shut behind her, she pressed her pillow against her face and began to cry.
No, the thing that would stop her was the impossibility of it all.
’And when the ladies get degrees
Depend on it there’s naught will please
Till they have got our chairs and fees
And there’s an end of you and me.’
(Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, Anonymous, 1873)
When she first came to Cleveland, Vita cried every day. She cried because she was anxious, or exhausted, or discouraged, or simply overwhelmed by all the new experiences piling up one on top of each other without pause. She was never overwhelmed back in Lark’s Eye. In Lark’s Eye, she was the one who knew everything, or thought she did.
‘It will be a waste of your time and money,’ Dr. Boutwell had said when she first approached him about being her preceptor. They were standing in his office, two small rooms above a Levantine store that sold patterned carpets. Vita had found his address in the city directory.
‘They won’t accept you into the medical program here,’ he told her. ‘I’m sorry, but they won’t.’ He meant because she was a woman.
‘But Emily Blackwell graduated from the Cleveland Medical College.’
‘You mean Elizabeth. She graduated from a college in New York, and originally she was accepted only as a joke.’
‘No, not Elizabeth; her sister, Emily,’ Vita had said. ‘Emily received a degree from the medical college here.’
She’d been in Cleveland for only three days but had already found her way to the medical college, an imposing stone building on St. Clair Avenue. Vita, staring up at the windows, could imagine the classrooms inside: rows of desks facing a podium, diagrams sketched in chalk on a blackboard. Her heart lifted at the thought of sitting on a stool, taking notes among students who, like herself, were excited to learn about arteries and endemic fevers.
‘Well, they might have accepted her a few years ago,’ Dr. Boutwell said, ‘before the war, but . . .’
Vita stopped listening and began instead to recite to herself the bones of the hand – scaphoid, lunate, triquetrum, pisiform – because she’d learned from long experience that the first answer always was no. She was also trying to suppress her worries over what she’d done; to appear mature and confident. The office window was open a crack to let in the breeze – it was just as humid here, even in September, as it had been in Lark’s Eye – and she watched glittering crumbs of dust float down toward the floorboards.
Dr. Boutwell’s office building was the runt of the block, but it was downtown, just off Public Square, right in the heart of the city. That was exciting. Riding the horsecar, which here they called a streetcar, was exciting, too, and also watching the enormous barges slough their way across Lake Erie, a body of water so vast it might easily be called a sea.
Iron and oil had changed Cleveland overnight from a village to a full-blown city. Almost twice as many people lived here now, Mrs. McDove told her, than lived here before the war began. Cheap wooden houses with taverns on every corner could be found in The Haymarket, south of Public Square; yet not too distant from that was Euclid Avenue, which they called Millionaires’ Row for its lavish mansions and the stately elm trees lining the road. There was a new city fire department with a telegraph system to sound the alarms, and the downtown streets were lit with gas lamps from sunset to midnight. Mills, foundries, wholesale houses, shipyards – almost any imaginable industry could be found on the waterfront along the Cuyahoga River, known as The Flats. It seemed to Vita that every Clevelander was busy at all times either making money or spending it.
Lark’s Eye, which had felt isolated and dull before, now seemed so slow in comparison that it might be dead. In spite of her fears, or maybe because of them, Vita vowed to herself that she would stay in Cleveland until someone dragged her away or buried her standing up, facing her enemies, like an ancient Irish warrior. She wouldn’t back down.
‘Still, for Freddy’s sake,’ she’d said when at last Dr. Boutwell finished listing all the problems with her plan, ‘won’t you take me on?’
For a moment she thought she had him. But then he shook his head and began telling her no all over again.
It took her three tries to convince him. On the last visit, when he opened his door to find her standing in the hallway yet again, Dr. Boutwell had sighed theatrically and raised his shoulders, giving up.
‘But only because you might be able to find work as a midwife, or work with a doctor later as his assistant. You can at least earn a living that way.’
‘I’ll be a doctor,’ she insisted, ‘not an assistant.’
She kept in her pocket a list of women doctors:
Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, now practicing in New York
Linda Folger Fowler, now teaching in Rochester
Harriot Hunt, practicing medicine since 1835
Trotula of Salerno, an 11th-century Italian doctor and professor
Aspasia, a specialist in obstetrics in Greece, 450 B.C.
There was also:
Jane Hawkins, denounced as a witch in 1641 and expelled from Boston
Margaret Jones, denounced as a witch in 1648 and executed in Boston
‘But medical colleges, all of them, are notoriously difficult – ’
‘I’ll prepare like nothing else,’ Vita interrupted. ‘The one thing I know how to do is study.’
He paused. ‘As a doctor you must learn how to listen, too.’
‘That won’t be a problem,’ she promised.
He had opened his office door holding a small kettle in his hand; now, motioning her in, he turned to put it on the coal stove. ‘Well you’ll have to get your own teacup,’ he said, ‘because I only have one.’
The morning after she pulled Elsie Archer’s tooth, Vita walked to work as usual to save money. The temperature had dropped overnight and slushy piles of old snow lining the street had frozen into pitted drifts.
She saw patients with Dr. Boutwell in his office from Monday through Thursday, and on Fridays they both volunteered at the Old Soldiers’ Home near the train station. On very cold or rainy days Vita took the streetcar to his office, but in truth she preferred to walk. She liked the bustle of the crowded sidewalks and the sense of urgency as men hawked their wares – knife-sharpeners, rag collectors, muffin sellers, and every other kind of tradesmen she could imagine.
‘Outta my way there!’ a man rolling a barrel down the sidewalk shouted at an errand boy trotting toward him.
‘Oy! Git gone yourself.’
Men in well-cut coats and brushed hats greeted each other from opposite corners, raising their voices to be heard over the grumbling delivery carts: ‘Are you going to Nisbet’s next week?’ ‘Wouldn’t miss it!’
Such an exchange would never happen in Lark’s Eye, where a lifted hand might begin the conversation and another hand lifted back would end it. In Lark’s Eye, merchants waited in shops for customers to find them, but in Cleveland everything was a public hustle. Maybe it was like this in every growing city.
She’d written to her mother from the train station in Boston while she waited for the connection to Cleveland. After she left Jacob that morning, trying to come up with a plan, Vita remembered Dr. Boutwell’s letter to Freddy. Cleveland, then. She didn’t want Mitty to worry, but she also didn’t tell her where she was.
I’ve gone to train to be a doctor. As we discussed. This has been my dream forever and I know I can do it. Please don’t worry. And please don’t tell Dar. Jacob isn’t with me, but I’m perfectly safe. P.S. Take care of Sweetie for me.
Two days later, she wrote to Gemma:
I’m in Cleveland and I’ll send you a fixed address as soon as I’m settled. Please write to me with news. No one else knows where I am, and I don’t want them to know. It’s strange to live in a city.
Let me know if you hear anything about Jacob.
But Gemma, as she told Vita in her return letter, had heard nothing about Jacob.
Clouds ruffled overhead and coupled with blowing smoke from the factories. Vita pushed thoughts of Jacob away yet again. She needed to concentrate on her studies, only her studies. She’d made her choice. As she neared Public Square the lake wind grew fiercer, slapping her cheeks with an icy hand. She wished she’d stolen a warmer cloak from the hotel in Lark’s Eye.
‘Tea?’ Dr. Boutwell asked when Vita got to the office. ‘The water’s just boiled.’
He came in early each morning to light the stove, which meant the little office was always warm by the time she arrived. Vita nodded, unwinding her half-frozen scarf and taking off the mittens she was wearing over her gloves. She pulled off her boots and placed them in the wooden crate near the door, and then she stepped into the pair of soft-soled shoes she kept in the office. The black smock she wore every day over her dress had two large front pockets, which held a pencil attached to a long notebook, a silver-plated tongue depressor, plasters and small splints, and thumb-sized capsules of quinine, iron citrate, tincture of cardamom, and other doses of what they regularly administered. Dr. Boutwell kept his larger instruments rolled up in a long leather strip, which he unrolled on the windowsill (for the light) when he needed to choose one. The entire office was comprised of two small rooms, plus a tiny office in the back – a closet really – where they kept tonics and pills and unmixed powders for medicine.
Vita mixed up a basin of chlorinated water and began washing her hands. Dr. Boutwell had drilled into her the importance of this.
‘A Hungarian doctor, a man named Ignaz Semmelweis, discovered that doctors with unclean hands could carry diseases to their patients,’ he’d explained on her very first day. ‘That was almost twenty years ago now, and the evidence keeps mounting, although there was a great outcry, I can tell you, when the man first published his findings.’
Dr. Boutwell had all the current medical journals delivered to his office and he loaned them, along with his textbooks, to Vita with a generous spirit. He’d been only fourteen when he got a job as an apothecary boy in Cleveland, delivering powders to doctors. Later he studied at the University of Toronto, where his first practical study was the human wrist.
‘I’ll never forget my surprise over the beauty of the tendons,’ he said. ‘I had expected many things, but not beauty.’
Vita dried her hands and checked the water level in the corner barrel. Her goal today was to make no mistakes. That was her goal every day.
‘Shall I turn the shingle?’ Dr. Boutwell asked.
He went to the window and flipped the wooden sign so it faced the street: Dr. D.A. Boutwell, Physician and Surgeon.
The day had begun.
Their first patient was a lean man with a bad stomach; Dr. Boutwell asked Vita to mix a dose of Columbia powder with magnesium for him to take home with him. After that they saw a tall, bony woman with sores in her mouth (rosewater, ammonia, and honey mouthwash), an old man who needed gout pills (gum guaiacum and camphor with ginger syrup), and a young boy who slunk in behind his mother.
‘He’s dizzy and sick at his stomach all the day and he’s got headaches at night,’ the mother explained. She was a short woman with long, full lips that drooped into a permanent frown. ‘Yesterday before supper he fainted right there in my kitchen, almost caught the corner end of my stove.’
Dr. Boutwell touched the boy’s forehead. He looked at Vita. ‘Do you have any questions for the lad?’
She could tell he knew already what the trouble was, but she was at a loss.
‘Maybe his eyes?’ Dr. Boutwell prompted.
‘Have you had any trouble with your eyes?’ Vita asked.
‘Spots sometimes,’ the boy whispered. He was only eleven or so, all elbows and knees like a fast-growing colt. ‘White spots.’
‘Did you see them before you fainted?’
‘I did, ma’am.’
She had to bend close to hear him. His lips were swollen, she noticed. She touched his belly, which felt swollen, too. She asked the boy more questions, eliminating dropsy, bilious fever, and cholera, but she was still no closer until Dr. Boutwell asked the boy how his appetite was.
‘Eating my cupboards bare,’ the mother said for him.
Ah. ‘Ringworm?’ Vita looked at Dr. Boutwell.
‘Tapeworm, more likely.’
Tapeworm! She should have thought of that immediately, but the fainting put her off track. The commonest cause is the commonest culprit, Dr. Boutwell liked to say. He was still looking at her expectantly.
‘For that we give,’ Vita said, hoping her voice would prompt her memory, ‘for that we prepare . . .’
‘Kousso,’ Dr. Boutwell reminded her.
The kousso plant. Of course. She found the powdered mixture in the little closet in the far room where they kept their supplies, and although she could not hear Dr. Boutwell from there, she felt sure he was giving the boy a sugared almond while asking the mother to return with him next week so they could check the efficacy of the cure. He kept a lined accountant’s notebook in which he recorded every patient’s ailment and the medicine he prescribed. The indigo ink he favored faded to purple as the months went by, and Vita knew this because he often asked her to look up a case; he remembered dates with an accuracy she envied.
Just as they were about to close for lunch, a young man came into the office wearing a striped scarf and matching cap in two shades of blue. He introduced himself as John Gaines, and told them he was suffering from headaches and what he called ‘heart ticks.’ He had a lean face, and this along with his ginger hair and darting eyes put Vita in mind of a fox who’d wandered into a city. Out of his element, perhaps, but more curious than afraid.
‘Heart ticks?’ Dr. Boutwell asked. ‘What do you mean by ticks?’
‘Up and down. Sudden spurts.’
Dr. Boutwell looked at Vita. ‘Heart palpitations,’ she suggested, and Dr. Boutwell nodded in agreement. He asked the young man to sit.
‘My ma tried the clamshell and sugar cure on me, and also the cold water cure of standing in cold water up to my ankles. A doctor over on Pearl Street said not to eat limes, pickles, or currants, but that didn’t help neither.’
‘Would you kindly hold out your hand? My assistant will take your pulse.’
Like Elsie Archer’s mother, John Gaines looked around for his assistant. When Vita stepped closer he drew his head back and narrowed his eyes at her.
She turned his wrist over and found the artery. ‘Heartbeat is normal,’ she said after a minute, and then gave him back his hand. John Gaines touched the place where her fingers had been.
‘You been helping the doctor long?’ he asked her. His breath smelled like rank pork and molasses.
‘I’m studying to be one,’ she said.
He narrowed his eyes again, considering that. His chin was small and sharp, and his long nose seemed to point to it.
‘What do you do for a living, Mr. Gaines?’ Dr. Boutwell asked.
It turned out he did nothing. When he came back from the war, his mother didn’t want him to stray too far so she could keep an eye on him.
‘My ma takes in boarders and I look after things like fetching the coal and keeping up the fires,’ he said. ‘But then a shaking moved into my heart and I couldn’t carry coal no more for fear that something might burst in me. I’m thinking I should take to my bed. Am I dying?’ he asked stoutly, almost as if he hoped he was. ‘You can tell me straight out.’
The sudden lift in his voice made Vita think he wanted some excitement. Dr. Boutwell must have thought so too, since after examining his eyes and throat, touching his lymph nodes, and then touching his back to check the size of his liver, he told John Gaines he was nowhere near dying.
‘You need more employment; that’s all. You’re a strong young man. And the war is over.’
‘Not fer my ma it ain’t.’
‘She’ll learn to live without you during the day. After all, she lived without you when you were off fighting.’
‘What about my, what d’you call ’em, my palprations?’
‘Palpitations. I can give you some iron pills,’ Dr. Boutwell told him. He turned to Vita. ‘Will you fetch the young man a cup of water? I’ll return directly,’ he said as he went into the back room.
John Gaines’s eyes followed Vita as she made her way to the barrel in the corner. Sinking the dipper into the water a strange feeling came over her, as though a thin string of spider web had brushed up against her skin. When she turned around John Gaines was standing right behind her, close enough to touch. How had he crept up so silently?
He leered at her. ‘So you aim to be a doctor, do you?’
For some men, a barrier went down once you touched them; after that, according to a logic Vita couldn’t fathom (but by this time recognized), you were fair game for being touched yourself. She had learned to step back quickly, but John Gaines was quicker and he grabbed her by the forearm.
‘Let me thank you for checking my pains.’ His lips were open and wet.
‘That’s enough,’ she told him, wrenching her arm away.
He grabbed her again. ‘Oh, now, don’t take offense.’
She tried to pull away again but this time his grip was firmer.
‘Unless you’re the type that don’t care for a man’s thanks?’
‘Let go of me.’
He was still grinning. With his free hand he tried to grab the space between her legs but all he got was a fistful of black smock. Spreading his long fingers he went for her breast but Vita dodged sideways, her back twisting painfully. He made a sound – tchunh! – his tongue popping from the roof of his mouth. He tugged her arm hard, trying to force her into a better position for his grabs.
‘Only if you promise to meet me later.’
With her free hand Vita made a fist and cuffed him on the ear just as Dr. Boutwell came back into the room, a paper twist of pills in his hand.
‘Ow! Hey there!’ John Gaines shouted, letting go of her to clutch his ear.
‘What’s happening here?’ Dr. Boutwell asked, although he could tell at a glance what was happening and quickly stepped between them.
‘Here are your pills, Mr. Gaines, and now you can pay me fourteen cents and be off. Go back to your doctor on Pearl Street next time, or go see Dr. Neville up the street. But don’t come back here.’
John Gaines still had his hand clapped to his head. ‘I should get the pills for free on account of my burst ear.’
‘It’s not burst. My fourteen cents, if you please.’
Vita, her heart still racing, disciplined herself not to rub her bruised arm. She didn’t want to let John Gaines know how much his grip had hurt – to give him that satisfaction. After he left, Dr. Boutwell closed the door and locked it. It was almost noon anyway, when they usually closed for lunch. Vita sat down on the wooden stool in front of the stove, opened the little door and, as if to change the subject, began pushing around the ashy coals with a poker. She was trying hard not to cry.
‘Oh, Vita,’ Dr. Boutwell said, putting a hand on her shoulder.
He was like an older brother to her; he was like Freddy. It was his sympathy more than anything else that brought on her tears. Dr. Boutwell pulled a handkerchief from his pocket.
‘He’s a troubled young man. He doesn’t have enough to occupy him, but that’s no excuse.’
‘It’s not only him,’ she said, wiping tears from her chin. ‘It’s everything. All of it. It’s all so . . . so physical.’
Touching patients’ wrists, their damp foreheads, the insides of their mouths; and having some of them, like John Gaines, try to touch her back – she hadn’t anticipated how hard that would be. She was someone who read books and memorized lists. The parts of the outer ear. The bones of the hand. That’s what she thought doctoring was about. But in common practice she was failing, hardly able to diagnose a condition even if she’d read and memorized the symptoms, like tapeworm.
How could I be so bad at all this, she wondered? Back in Lark’s Eye it never occurred to her that her usual diligence and concentration wouldn’t be enough. She loved reading about the intricacies of the nervous system, or the infection rate of smallpox, or the earmarks of malaria, but when faced with an actual patient she always seemed to falter. Even with John Gaines, she had faltered. She might have thought of iron pills.
Would she ever be able to diagnose an ailment on the spot? And if she did, would the patients believe her? Would the men? There were more John Gaineses in the world than she had imagined.
‘You’re tough,’ Dr. Boutwell said. ‘But it takes time, and it also takes practice.’
She’d been at it for over three months. Maybe she couldn’t do it.
‘Wanting to do something is a long way from doing it well,’ she said.
‘Well, that’s true. And it will be harder for you than for the others, for the young men. But I don’t have to tell you that.’
Jacob had warned her that her gender would get in the way. He was right.
‘I thought doctoring would be hard,’ she said, ‘but hard like solving an algebra problem is hard. If you’ve memorized how parts of the body function and break, and the mechanisms to fix what breaks – medicines and so on, surgery, whatever is needed – well then, it would simply be a matter of memory and application. I’m good at that. But there’s more guesswork than I thought. And the patients, they move around and talk.’
He smiled at that, as she meant him to, but she was thinking: And grab at you, and make lewd suggestions.
‘Some of them talk quite a bit,’ he said. ‘And they don’t always tell you the truth.’
‘I’m not good with people. I never have been. I didn’t think it would matter.’
He frowned in sympathy. ‘All we can do is listen and look. And ask questions. Think of your patients as textbooks, if that helps. The clues are there to be read.’
It sounded easy, the way he put it. But it wasn’t.
‘It should be Freddy sitting here, not me. He’s the one who should be here.’
She hadn’t known she was going to say that. She hadn’t even known she thought that. Looking up, she saw an expression flick over Dr. Boutwell’s face, like a butterfly touching down on a flower only briefly before changing its mind.
‘But you know,’ he said, ‘Freddy wouldn’t want to be here. He wanted to work with animals, be a horse doctor perhaps, a veterinarian, only he was afraid of what your father would say.’
‘Is that true?’ Vita was surprised. It sounded like Freddy, but Freddy had never breathed a word about this to her.
‘You look so much like him. But he didn’t have your ambition.’
‘My father hates my ambition.’
‘I’m sure he would be proud if he saw how hard you’re working.’
Would he? She always hoped Dar would be proud of her; she couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t. The idea of his respect was like a child’s pretend friend, useful but imaginary. She usually avoided talk of her parents, letting Dr. Boutwell assume that they knew what she was doing. She was even more secretive about Jacob. A war widow, she called herself. Sometimes, in her weaker moments – like now – she wondered if Jacob would take her back. Maybe she should abandon this experiment.
She looked down at Dr. Boutwell’s handkerchief and rubbed the initials, DB, embroidered in tiny yellow cross-stitch in the corner. David Boutwell. She knew so little about him, really. He lived with his wife and twin sons on the Near East Side, and on Sundays they went to the Congregational church on Erie Street. His father had been a failed inventor; he told her that, once.
‘Was it hard for you when you started?’ Vita asked, handing him back the handkerchief.
Dr. Boutwell cocked his head. His mustache, so neatly trimmed and waxed, tilted into a fishhook. ‘I was miserable,’ he said.
’It is enough for women to love, to pray to God, and to spin.’
February 1866, Lark’s Eye, Massachusetts
Arthur’s eyes were closed, but he opened them immediately. Marie, walking into Freddy’s old bedroom, felt a sudden shock – like she’d come upon a corpse.
‘What are you doing here?’ she asked.
He was lying on Freddy’s bed.
‘Just resting a moment.’ He made no move to sit up, though he didn’t close his eyes again. ‘Actually, I was thinking of moving my things in here. To give you more room.’
‘Moving in here to sleep?’
‘Yes, to sleep!’ he snapped, and she immediately felt chastened. But she persisted.
Now he closed his eyes. ‘Mm.’
Sweetie, perched on Marie’s shoulder, rubbed her beak against Marie’s jawline and pecked at her cheek three times in quick succession. Herding me, Marie thought. She crossed the room to open a window, which was the reason she’d come in here – to air the room out. She did this once a week.
Freddy’s room still had the simple curtains and whitewashed walls from babyhood, since one of her son’s quirks was that he never wanted anything altered. Even when Amelia and Vita had their rooms wallpapered and fitted with new carpets, he refused to do the same. The only thing that changed was an increasing number of shelves and cupboards, which he built himself, to hold his own collections: a set of miniature wooden globes; variously sized mineral nuggets; a real but non-functioning telegraph key that Uncle Norbert had brought back from a trip to New York many years ago; and old nursery toys, including a small wooden wolf with a fleece covering that came on and off.
After she drew back the curtains, Marie heaved up the middle window and propped it open with a stack of three books; adventure novels with bright orange covers. When Freddy first left for war, Amelia rearranged the objects on his shelves so that ‘the displays matched,’ as she put it, and she placed the toy wolf on a shelf with his games – cribbage and an old Faro set – and his adventure novels next to his schoolbooks. But the next day, Amelia reported, someone had moved them all back. Arthur? Vita? Mrs. O.? Marie wondered if they all came in here occasionally, as she did, to sit on Freddy’s bed and look at his things.
Would Arthur pack away these boyhood collections? Make the room his own? That would be a good thing, probably. Forward movement. But she didn’t think he would. What he wanted, she suspected, was to lie among the relics.
‘If you’d like to move in here, of course you should. I’ll ask Mrs. O. to come help.’
‘Thank you, my dear,’ Arthur said in a gentler voice. He wasn’t heartless, she reminded herself. He was ill. Sunlight pushed through the windows intensely for a moment, and the sudden glare evoked in her the old feeling of waiting. But the waiting was over. Freddy would never come back.
There was a time when Marie believed that nothing would ever top the shock of hearing about President Lincoln’s murder, the complete stupor she felt all the day after. Like Arthur, she read the newspapers word for word, page after page, following the story from every angle. Even a week later her mind felt incapable of taking in anything else. But that was a pinhead’s worth of water compared to the drenching she felt when the telegram about Freddy arrived. The awful truth was, once she learned about Freddy, she no longer cared so much about President Lincoln, although of course she would never say that to anyone. A terrible act, shooting a man in the back while he watched a light comedy with his wife, but it was remote, whereas Freddy’s death was close and tangible. She could still remember the feel of his fine, two-year-old hair as she combed it with a wet comb and wound a dark strand around her finger to curl it. The newspapers – all their words, all their arguments – could never erase what happened. They could not even explain it, although they held out that promise every day.
Sweetie pushed her little head against Marie’s cheek again, and she heard the shrush of feathers against her ear. All right. She hadn’t meant to get maudlin. She was almost at the door when Arthur said, ‘What have you heard from Vita?’ Still with his eyes shut.
‘She and Jacob are moving to a larger house,’ she told him.
‘Are they? Well.’
‘Apparently they had to lay all new carpets in the downstairs rooms.’
‘And they’ve had two of the back windows enlarged.’
‘Such industry! He’s an energetic young man. Exactly what she needs.’ Marie waited for the punch. ‘To tame her.’
She was standing at the foot of the bed and could smell the sour smell of his stockinged feet. His hair was shiny with grease, and a dirty tendril was plastered in place over his left temple. When was the last time he bathed?
‘I’ll leave you to your rest, then,’ Marie said, shutting the door behind her.
Her lies to him were getting increasingly elaborate. It soothed her to imagine Vita’s home. A brick house, a front door painted forest green. She didn’t know who she was trying to protect with these stories, Arthur or Vita. Or maybe herself?
She had written to her connections in Boston, wording her letters carefully, striving for a light tone. ‘My daughter owes me a long letter; please scold her for me if you see her!’ They both wrote back that they hadn’t yet seen her, but would certainly scold her roundly if they did. And how is your dear husband? And your sister Clara?
They were Mrs. Caroline Abbot and Mrs. Deborah DeLong, two old school friends from New Haven who currently lived a few blocks from each other in Boston. Who else did she know there? She didn’t want to ask Arthur. Maybe she should try her cousin Maria Maag in Philadelphia? Of course, she could only use the excuse of wanting a letter from Vita once; after that, Marie just had to hope they would mention it if they’d seen her.
She would have to keep up the correspondence, then. Renew past friendships. Write more regularly.
Perhaps that wasn’t a bad thing.
She went to her room and took out her little portable writing desk and, like Arthur, went to her bed although it was only three o’clock in the afternoon – the little clock on her bookshelf chimed the hour in muffled coughs. Vita was capable and confident, but also unworldly. And she was still her child. It was Marie’s duty to keep her safe. The trouble was, Vita didn’t want to be kept safe.
Sitting up against the pillows, Marie arranged the desk over her lap. Then she flipped open the top of the ink well. Dipped her pen nib. Took a moment to think.
Dear Maria, she began.
’There are many arguments against the female doctor. In the first place, in the majority of cases, she is an unnatural being.’
(St. Louis Medical Mirror, Editorial, 1892)
February 1866, Boston, Massachusetts
Jacob thought he might as well start his search here in Boston, although he didn’t really believe Vita would run away to the place where they planned to set up house together. Of course, her choices were limited.
She would be studying with a preceptor and preparing for college, so naturally it made sense to visit colleges where she might eventually apply. The New England Female Medical College was located near Boston’s Back Bay, and Jacob’s idea was that she might look for a preceptor among the professors.
But she could be anywhere, really.
If he had found a preceptor for her before they were married, like she’d asked, then he would know where she was. But it did no good to think this way. It wasn’t his fault. Anyway, his immediate job was to find her and take her home. She was his wife. He needed her, he now realized. One thing he’d learned from Andersonville was that your best hope of survival was to, in Caleb’s words, form a shield wall. Lone prey were targeted and picked off. Not only by the guards, but by the starving inmates too.
Their shield wall was made up of five men, the Five Knights as they called themselves, and they worked together to stay alive. Caleb had been the leader, and the one Jacob felt the closest to. He grew up on his father’s farm near Kirtland, Ohio, and his mother had been one of the first women to graduate from Oberlin College – which was also, Caleb told Jacob, a ‘hotbed’ of antislavery fervor. His parents were ardent abolitionists, and Caleb joined up as soon as the war began. He’d been captured while tearing up a railroad six miles south of Petersburg, Virginia, and sent to Belle Isle prison camp before being transferred to Andersonville. He was among the first prisoners to arrive, and he told Jacob that slave women were still setting logs for the stockade wall when he got there.
Caleb had a quiet voice, slightly husky, and except in death the corners of his mouth were always slightly stretched, giving the impression he was about to break into a smile – which he often did. He was cheerful but serious, intent on keeping them all alive with a methodical regimen: exercise, cleanliness, and adequate shelter.
‘There’s no police, no magistrate, and the guards don’t care about ten thousand Union men brawling or starving to death,’ he explained. Later the numbers would swell to twenty thousand, then thirty thousand. Jacob didn’t know it then, but he was lucky in a way (the luck of the unlucky) to have got in early, since the later captives had to dig holes like wild animals to try to stay warm, and most of their belongings were stolen during their first night at camp when they didn’t know enough to protect themselves better. Fresh fish, they were called.
Caleb led Jacob back to his tent on that first morning, where three other men – all bones for arms and bones for legs – sat around a small, smoky fire. They were introduced as Ethan, Lewis, and Tom. Tom was boiling water in an impossibly small tin pot. The prison was spread over sixteen acres with a creek running through it, providing the men with drinking water. The problem was, they also washed themselves in it.
‘That’s why we boil every drop we drink,’ Tom told him. Tom was a Michigan man. Lewis grew up near Chicago, and Ethan, like Jacob, was from Massachusetts. Ethan had made a deal with one of the guards to buy his used tobacco chew, which he dried out to make into snuff and then sold.
‘We’re always on the lookout to find ways to barter for extra food,’ Caleb said.
Maybe it was the gentle whisper of his voice, or maybe it was the sight of the lone man ten feet away from them who was lying in a shallow rut running brown with diarrhea, too weak to move, staring at Jacob as though peering out from his grave. Jacob understood in that moment that he couldn’t survive by himself.
Caleb outlined their rules for him:
- Drink no water until it’s been boiled
- Clean your body every morning
- Exercise every afternoon
- Talk, joke, and make light of things – don’t allow yourself to get despondent.
It was almost impossible to keep clean without soap, something Jacob never saw in all the months he was there. But they could at least scrape the lice off their bodies each day – most of the lice – and rub their skin with a frayed wet rag. Caleb and the others called the lice graybacks, and they called the rebel soldiers who guarded them graybacks, too. Although the guards were there to keep anyone from escaping, they didn’t mind if the Yankees fought among themselves; in fact they liked to collect around the fighting prisoners and bet on the outcome. Strange at first to Jacob: many of the guards wore blue Yankee uniforms.
‘The Sanitation Commission regularly sends clothes to us,’ Caleb explained. ‘But the graybacks go through the barrels first.’
If any man spoke sharply to a guard he was taken outside the stockade where he was bucked and gagged: made to sit on the ground with his arms tied around his raised knees, with a horse bit shoved into his mouth. And if he stepped over the deadline – the flimsy rail fence that ran around the prison about fifteen feet in from the stockade walls – he was shot. Many of the prisoners were barefoot or had muddy rags tied around their feet, and all were skeleton-thin. Every stage of hunger could be witnessed within fifteen minutes of walking around the camp.
‘The Southerners are not a business people,’ Lewis told him. ‘They can’t manage their treasury, they can’t repair their railroads, and though they say they are going to erect tent shelters for us, they can’t coordinate the supplies. Best not to expect any better than what you have now. And don’t for God’s sake ask for anything, it’ll just get you in trouble. Don’t even talk to the guards if you can help it. Like the Southern Confederacy itself, you should only want to be let alone.’
Prison camp was almost worse than battle, because prolonged, although after his friend Matthew Ames died Jacob had stopped believing in the rhetoric of war in any case. At Andersonville they were all crowded together, all these heroic soldiers of the North, most of them suffering from dysentery and near-starvation, with lice crawling over their soft bruised flesh as if devouring them alive. The prisoners took each other’s beggarly possessions by stealth if they could and by force if not. Their weapons were knives stolen from the cookhouse, and sticks that they sharpened as best they could, and rocks aimed at another man’s head with precision.
They were all Union soldiers. They were all, in theory, on the same side.
‘Keep your spirits up,’ Caleb liked to say. ‘It’s a matter of will.’
A matter of will and, Jacob thought later, a good dose of make-believe. He arrived in late March and was liberated the following year in May. Confederate Camp Sumter, Andersonville Post Office, Anderson Station, on the Sumter–Macon county line. In those fourteen months he never received any packages or letters, and only after his release did he learn that his sister had died while he was imprisoned. Even the Five Knights died off one by one, except for him. Lewis and Tom died of dysentery, Ethan caught pneumonia, and Caleb was shot by a guard in a sentry box while he was repairing the embankment after a heavy rain – a job he’d been ordered to do. Caleb had leaned an inch too far out over the edge, trying to do the job properly, and the guard shot him in the back of the head.
The Boston Post claimed that work was still going on filling in the Back Bay with dirt hauled in from Needham, twenty-five miles away – the idea was to build more housing once it was filled – but one-horse tipcarts continued to dump refuse collected from wealthier neighborhoods into the marsh, and the neighborhood exuded an odor of dung, rotting onions, and coal ash. Jacob kept to the lanes and alleys where the mill hands lived – rows of low brick houses with pig pens and chicken coops in the yards, wet sheets hanging from windows (one or two dried to a frozen stiffness), and broken whiskey jugs on the street leading like a trail of breadcrumbs away from the taverns.
A half mile past the cheap brick housing some larger dwellings remained; among them was the college Jacob was looking for. It was a square mansion with dormer windows and a long stone staircase leading up to a set of imposingly wide front doors. Clearly a former residence. It was a bitterly cold day – the air felt sucked dry of any moisture and an icy wind found the knife-edge of skin between his glove and coat sleeve – but inside the college it wasn’t much warmer. The large front hall was empty. There was a row of wooden pegs to his right, with various cloaks and coats laying claim to them, and next to that a door that looked to be painted shut. To his left was the office – or so he assumed; its door was propped open.
‘You must get the wind every time someone comes in,’ he said to the woman sitting behind a large table that doubled as a desk. She had strong, square shoulders and massive auburn hair piled up on her head like a basket, and wore a pince-nez on her nose. She took the pince-nez off and let it dangle from its chain.
‘I should close my door but the idea is to be welcoming.’
Jacob asked her if she knew a Vita Culhane in the college. But the secretary, or whatever she was – Mrs. O’Reilly, she introduced herself – said there was no one by that name enrolled as a student (he hadn’t held out much chance of that anyway). When he asked about professors taking on students as apprentices, she shook her head again.
‘I keep the professors’ schedules. I would recognize the name.’
‘No Vita at all? How about Vita Tenney?’
‘No. I would know.’
She looked, indeed, like she knew everything; more than perhaps you wanted her to know. She was watching him shrewdly.
He offered, ‘I’ve just come back home from the war. I was in prison camp, and then I was ill. I’m her brother.’
‘And you’re certain she’s in Boston?’
‘No. I only know she wanted to study medicine. It was her dream.’
Mrs. O’Reilly suggested he go to Baltimore. A couple of women physicians lived there, she told him, and one had recently given a lecture at their college.
‘They might act as preceptors for young women,’ she said.
‘So there are female doctors?’ he asked. ‘Practicing, I mean?’
She gave him a tired look. ‘More than you might think.’
A week later Jacob took the morning train to Baltimore and checked into a small hotel near Calvert Station. Baltimore, although only three degrees south of Boston, felt much closer to spring: a cold but not icy breeze played along the streets, and he saw a handful of budding green leaves on the trees. He passed women dressed in vibrant, spring colors – chartreuse, emerald green, cobalt blue – and near the packing houses there was a powerful scent of fresh oysters.
Somewhere a band was playing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, or maybe it was only a handful of men on a corner with an empty hat in front of them. He couldn’t listen to that song anymore without seeing the slow advance of army supply wagons – their company bandleader, a man called Chicken because of his skinny legs and the loose flesh of his neck, – began playing it as soon as the lead wagon was spotted. But the supplies, when they finally came, were never enough. Not enough meat, not enough flour, not enough medicines. He hoped never to drink chicory coffee again.
Dr. Rebecca Coleson lived in a corner house near a busy intersection where jostling merchants rang their bells trying to rustle up jobs: ‘Glass put in! Glass put in!’ ‘I’ll grind your horseradish!’ ‘Rags, any rags?’ Jacob felt suddenly engulfed as he shouldered his way among them. He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and felt his right arm and then his left, pretending to adjust his coat, until his panic subsided. Crowds could do this to him now. He made himself picture the openness of Lark’s Eye, where ducks waddling across the town green usually outnumbered the townspeople sitting on the benches. Eventually his breathing returned to normal.
To Jacob’s surprise, Dr. Coleson answered her own door.
‘I don’t take in many students,’ she said when Jacob explained his purpose. She was tall with a long beaked nose, and she hardly bothered to open the front door all the way to speak to him. ‘Men would rather study with men, and a girl has never approached me.’
Her practice must not be very lucrative, he thought as he crossed the street again, given the state of her house, which was weedy in front and needed a new coat of paint.
Dr. Deerview, on the other side of town, did not know Vita either, although her round dimpled face looked friendlier and she offered him coffee, which he declined. The mustard and white shingle hanging over her door announced her practice but not her sex: Dr. J.S. Deerview, Physician.
‘Have you tried the female medical colleges?’ she asked. ‘A student, a potential student, might go there first to look for a preceptor. That’s what I would do if I hadn’t had an uncle who could help me.’
‘I did, yes, the one in Boston.’
‘There’s one in Philadelphia, too. And I believe the Cleveland Medical College admits women as well as men, although I’m not certain about that.’
Jacob had a third address in his pocket: Marshall Windsor, a fellow he’d known at Andersonville. Marshall had lived in the ‘tent’ next to his – another makeshift affair made of sticks and rags and, in Marshall’s case, ripped shirts sent to the camp to be used as bandages. Marshall worked in the hospital tent; he was the one who helped Jacob carry Caleb to the Dead House after Caleb was shot. Although they had exchanged addresses the day they were released, they’d never written to each until Jacob sent a note last week saying he was coming to Baltimore. Would he care to meet?
The address Marshall sent in reply was for a downtown dining club – he lived with his married sister, and it was more convenient to dine out. At first Jacob didn’t recognize him sitting at a corner table with two glasses of ale before him. When he saw Jacob he stood up and waved him over.
‘You’ve gotten very fit!’ Jacob said, greeting him. Stout was the word he was thinking.
Marshall laughed. ‘You can see what a body will do for itself on three meals a day.’
At Andersonville the rations were doled out once a day, at four o’clock, and a quarter-pound spice can was used to measure out each man’s scanty portion of cornmeal, along with two ounces of bacon and, every third day, a half-teaspoon of salt. After Jacob’s second month there, the bacon disappeared.
‘To your health.’ Marshall raised his glass and nodded to the second glass for Jacob.
Jacob took it up. ‘And yours.’
A waiter brought them slabs of roast beef and separate plates of mashed peas, small discs of carrots, and brown bread with molasses. They drank slowly and ate quickly, like men who’d been starved for months on end. Jacob wondered if he always ate this way now, or if it was the effect of being with a fellow prisoner again.
The room glowed from the hurricane lamps on every table; some men dined alone reading a newspaper, while others raised their voices, trying to be heard in a group. The walls had dark wood paneling and framed pictures of hunting scenes. Every once in a while a dessert trolley wheeled slowly by on the thick carpet, as though advancing on sand. They spoke about the price of cattle and oysters, and Marshall told him about a new cracker manufactory in town, which his brother-in-law was managing.
‘To go with the oysters here, you see.’
Marshall worked as a clerk for the railroads, and Jacob found himself wondering if he could get him a job. If he wasn’t going to pursue the barrel glue idea, he needed to start looking for something else. He didn’t want to use up Vita’s money. He still thought of it that way: Vita’s money.
Marshall’s face had filled out and his hair was thick and shiny. The day they were liberated, he and Jacob and everyone else looked more dead than alive with their bony shoulders, their necks like flaccid rope. Jacob himself was so thin that a man collecting dead bodies had come toward him with a shovel. Jacob opened his eyes when he felt someone move his arm, and scared the poor man half to death.
‘We made it,’ Marshall had said to him outside the tall palisade gates. Their pace was as slow as a crawl. ‘We’re free. We can walk off in any direction at any time.’
He’d walked off in the direction of Baltimore and seemingly never looked back. Did he ever have tremors? Did he suffer from nightmares? All the questions Jacob had wanted to ask felt swallowed up by the room’s warm lighting, the plush chairs, the brandy he was sipping. Now that he was here, he didn’t want to risk losing this comfort.
Instead he asked, ‘What’s it like living in Baltimore?’
Marshall liked it. ‘Lots of boat clubs and hunting clubs, lots of socials. The young ladies here have a style to their humor, I can’t rightly explain it, and they’re also very pretty. Sometimes I take a Saturday off and a buddy and I take a couple of girls out to Gwynns Falls. I like my job, too. The pay’s good. The B & O has the best equipment in the country right now, what with all the locomotives it bought from the government. Making money hand over fist. Everyone wants to travel!’
Jacob nodded. To get away after months – years – of not being able to go anywhere in safety. He understood that.
‘We could use men like you,’ Marshall said, as if reading Jacob’s thoughts. ‘I can look around for open positions, if you like.’
But as soon as he offered it, Jacob knew with a heavy certainty that he didn’t want it. He couldn’t say why.
‘Good of you, thanks. Might be just the thing. I’ll let you know.’
‘You could let me know now! I’ll start poking around in the morning.’
Jacob hesitated. ‘To be honest, I’m not sure I want to move house.’
‘I know what it is. You have a girl back in Boston. Am I right?’
Marshall was smiling, pleased with himself. Jacob thought about how Vita was open like that – her thoughts written plainly on her face for anyone to read. He remembered the afternoon of Gemma and Ruffy’s wedding, how Vita looked at Gemma. And how her expression softened with sympathy while she listened to his story about Caleb and their Christmas dinner. Even now, without warning, he sometimes pictured her walking in the greenhouse with her brother’s bird on her shoulder. ‘She loves chopped-up carrots, when I can sneak any away.’
He wished he knew where she was. He was pulled to her without wanting to be. The last time he saw Marshall he’d been thinking he would sell his father’s farm and start a new life in Boston; he’d planned to work up a business and leave the war behind him, just as he’d left his father behind when he ran away to Cincinnati. Why was it so much harder now? He felt the tic start pulsing under his eye, blast it.
But Marshall didn’t seem to notice. They didn’t mention Andersonville until the end, and even then not directly. Saying good-night on the street, Marshall struggled to button the middle button of his overcoat and then laughed when he saw Jacob watching.
‘We survived. We owe it to ourselves to live well.’
‘We do deserve it.’ Jacob shook Marshall’s hand. ‘We surely do.’
He watched Marshall slowly cross the loosely cobbled street with his head thrust forward and down. When he was out of sight, Jacob turned and walked in the other direction to the harbor. The gas streetlights cast an oily light on the water, and he thought he could make out, down the pier, men loading crates onto a frigate. Dark brick houses rose up behind them – closer to the water than he would have expected – on the narrow street.
This spot, the place he was standing, was the furthest south he’d been since the war. Without looking away from the water, he pulled out from his coat pocket a small wooden rectangle on a string: the identification tag Matthew Ames had made for him after they’d been fighting for a year. The scrap of oak was so thin it had been hard to puncture a hole in it; Matthew used his penknife and broke two before he got the hole into this one. Jacob could still picture him at night carving the tiny, crooked letters: J. Culhane. Behind him the hillside was dotted with campfires like theirs, and tents, and men.
Jacob swung back his arm and lobbed the tag into the water, where it landed noiselessly and – he assumed, since he could no longer see it – sank. He’d wanted to talk to Marshall about the war and prison camp; he thought he might even show him his tag. But Marshall’s new interests – jobs, girls, the future of railroads – were no doubt healthier, and better suited to dinner talk. A dog barked near the frigate, and Jacob felt the tic pulse beneath his eye again. He didn’t want to hold onto the past, but he also didn’t know how to release it. The dog was still barking, high and menacing, as he turned and began walking along the darkened street toward his hotel, wishing he could believe in the power of gestures.
’Little women are more apt to conceive than great; slender, rather than gross; fair, rather than ruddy. To have great swelled breasts is good.’
(Dublin Quarterly Journal, Dr. John Denham, 1862)
March 12, 1866
Lark’s Eye, Massachusetts
Dear Miss Vita,
I wish I could see the tall buildings you describe. Aren’t you fearful being so high up, lest you fall out? There is not much in the way of news here. Your sister ordered material from New York with a Dutch windmill design and she wants me to make them into curtains for her kitchen. She complains that she’s bored and sometimes goes to the high school to help with I dont know what. It opens in less than a month. Only boys will be allowed to go, but last night Mr. Granger says he might let a girl in whose interested, and Miss Amelia says oh like Vita, and he says yes like you.
About once a week your sister asks me if I know anything and I always say no but I think she suspects me. Sometimes I bring your letters with me to reread them when I have a moment to myself, but I should stop that as she’s a terrible snoop. Your father is much the same though he’s begun to see a few patients again. Your mother is writing letters to people in New Haven now as well as Boston. I see the addresses when I post them. I suppose she wonders if you are there.
Pocket, our new horse, is wonderfully handsome and healthy. Ruffy has started studding him out. We’re going to build a house closer to town, we’ve almost got enough saved for the lot we picked out, and we can have it the bank says for just a deposit but Ruffy wants to buy it outright. I get awfully tired walking from our house to your house to Miss Amelia’s. I’d like to work in just one place but Mrs. O. says to go where I’m needed, the pay’s the same either way.
To answer your last, I still haven’t seen anything more of Mr. Culhane. Amelia says he’s in Boston, in the house he leased for the two of you. I’m sorry I dont know more.
Yours very truly,
March 31, 1866
I wish you could tell my mother not to worry about me but of course you can’t. Or maybe you could say, Oh Vita is very capable, I’m sure she’s fine. Though in truth I don’t feel very capable right at the moment. Doctoring is hard. Almost every day at four o’clock I wish I were sitting at the kitchen table with you and Mrs. O. and Amelia. I’m learning so much but sometimes and I know the practical experience will be useful.
How is Sweetie? Would you give her rolled-up bits of paper to chew on? I don’t want her to be anxious.
Now I’m off to study – I’ve read through nine medical volumes since I’ve been here! But I have about a hundred more to go.
All my love,
April 12, 1866
Lark’s Eye, Massachusetts
Dear Miss Vita,
I saw your mother last week when I went to help stretch the rugs and I waited until your name was mentioned and I said, ‘Oh Miss Vita will be a success in anything she tries.’ So I hope that was all right. Maybe she felt better. She didn’t say anything to it.
Sweetie is fine. She was sick on Easter week but your mother nursed her back with sugar water. I gave her extra paper rolls, like you asked. Riddle is getting very arthritic but he still climbs up the stairs every night. He sleeps in your mother’s bedroom. Your father has moved into your brother’s old room. He says he is writing a book about the war but I never see him writing, only reading.
Why don’t you write Jacob a letter? Ruffy thinks the world of him. I’ve enclosed his address in Boston. You probably have it already.
If you go to the theatre in Cleveland tell me and tell me the whole play. I wish we had a playhouse here. A traveling company came last week and did Piramas and Thisby in the schoolhouse for three nights running. Ruffy and I saw it the last night and we laughed so hard. We got those French letters you told me about, Ruffy had to send away for them by mail. We’ll have a baby after the horses start to pay, Ruffy says. I’m glad no one but you reads my letters.
I’m still working for your sister.
Yours very truly,
Vita folded up Gemma’s letter again – she’d read it four times now – and looked at the slip of paper with Jacob’s address in Boston. If he was still there. She’d never seen the house; ‘Anything’s fine,’ she told him when he showed her the lease before he signed it. That must have been, what, three weeks before their wedding? Four? He was wonderfully efficient about some things.
His face swam up at unexpected moments: once when she passed a flowerbox planted with crimson geraniums, and another time when she was looking at the Columbus Street bridge over the vast, tea-colored Cuyahoga River. The bridge was nothing like the little footbridge where they met in Riverside, but still, for a moment, she saw him so clearly. The mole near his eye. His dark hair. The fine wrinkles fanning out from his eyes when he smiled. She felt as though something small but vital had been torn from her skin, and even now, seven months later, the spot was still sore.
But what could she say in a letter? Nothing seemed right. I’m alone in Cleveland; will you come see me?
That sounded pathetic.
Might we talk?
That sounded as though she had something particular to say.
I’m having second thoughts. I might have made a mistake.
No. She would not say that.
She had forty-one dollars left, which she kept in an old rolled-up stocking in her dresser drawer. Her boot leather had gotten so thin that the damp came through but she couldn’t afford new shoes, so instead she began lining the insides with newspaper, which worked as long as she changed the paper out every few days.
Today, since it was Friday and the day she and Dr. Boutwell volunteered at the Soldiers’ Home, she had to spend a precious nickel to ride the streetcar – the Soldiers’ Home was too far to walk to. It was housed in a narrow, two-story stone building near the train station, and during the war it served as a stopping place for soldiers to get medical care and rest before returning to battle. Now it was half clinic and half hotel. Mustered-out men were shuttled from one Soldiers’ Home in one city to another, hopscotching their way across the country back to their farms, their towns, or to a new life elsewhere – many just kept going west.
She walked through the front room – a makeshift office where lines of soldiers waited to receive free clothes or to get help with pension forms – to the hospital ward, which always smelled of carbolic soap and burned coffee. The whitewashed walls had been festooned with flags and company regalia, and Vita felt the urge to salute the doctors, many of whom wore small Union buttons pinned to their lapels.
Although there were easily thirty beds, most of them occupied by soldiers, the ward had a womanly feel. Clusters of nurses in pinned hats and carefully ironed gray and white dresses removed breakfast trays and spoke to the men like commanders. (‘One last bite, there you are, if you could just hand me the spoon now.’) They’d been trained in the war, they were determined to do their duty even now at war’s end, and they were legion.
It was like falling asleep, Vita wrote to Gemma, and finding yourself in a dream world of crisp, bright, sanitary order maintained by mothers and sisters and aunts. The cadre of women, as precise as an army in formation, kept the floors swept and the beds tidy and the men fed and washed. They distributed the meals – today, by the smell of it, porridge with bacon – and changed damp bandages and made fresh coffee and wrote letters for those who couldn’t and distributed clean socks and a hundred other tasks besides. From the far window Vita could see two nurses beneath a canvas tent pushing wet laundry around in a tub; the wooden paddles they used were so long they slanted over their shoulders like rifles.
Dr. Boutwell stopped at each bed, checking wounds and asking soldiers about their symptoms, while Vita pulled from her pocket a long notebook with a pencil attached so she could take notes. Many of the abler veterans helped out by carrying heavy trays or basins of water for the nurses; she nearly stepped on one man who was scrubbing blood off the floor.
‘Oh, pardon!’ He tapped the air near his forehead, the brim of an invisible cap.
All of the men had been ticketed and registered; slips of paper tied to each bed marked their conditions, their names, and the names of their hometowns. One boy, according to his ticket, had been shot in the shoulder during the last battle in Texas, fought after the peace had been signed but before his general knew it. Dr. Boutwell asked Vita to check his wound while he took a look at the man a few beds away, whom they could hear breathing in a raspy struggle.
Vita helped the boy, whose name according to his slip was Alec Martin, to sit up. He wore a gown with a drawstring around the neck to make it easier to examine his wound.
‘He relives a battle,’ a passing nurse told her in a low voice. ‘Whenever I bend over him he grabs me by the arm. I think he’s trying to drag me away from a bursting shell.’
Sure enough, as Vita bent over to adjust the bandage he grabbed her wrist.
‘It’s coming! Get down!’
She waited a moment, feeling her pulse in her ears. Even after all these months it was still a struggle to adopt the tone of distant but professional concern that the nurses so easily maintained.
‘It’s all right now, Mr. Martin,’ Vita told him, ‘it’s safe,’ and he lowered his hand. ‘I’m just going to take a quick look at your shoulder. Does it itch?’ The bandage felt moist and she began to unwind it. ‘Oh, it’s healing very nicely,’ she told him. She cleaned the wound and wiped the edges with a small piece of oiled lint, noting as she did so the color (slightly red), the level of oozing pus (none), and his skin temperature (normal). Doctoring, at this level, was a checklist, a satisfying process.
‘It don’t seem possible that such a little tear could kill me,’ the boy said.
‘This won’t kill you, Mr. Martin.’
After she tied the bandage ends together he asked for water, cupping his palm as if he wanted her to pour it into that slight indentation. There was a tin mug on the table beside his bed, but when Vita looked inside she saw a rim of film on the water’s surface.
‘I’ll get you a fresh cup,’ she told him. When she returned she found him still holding out his cupped palm.
She put the cup to his lips. After a moment, as if deciding, he opened his mouth. He didn’t swallow until she pulled the cup away.
He wiped his chin. ‘Thanks, Ma.’
That stopped her. She’d heard nurses say that sometimes soldiers like this – the hard cases, they called them – mistook them for their mothers or sisters, but this was the first time it had happened to Vita.
A strong sense of Mitty came over her: her square fingernails and tapered fingers; the way she cut a muffin in half by cupping it in one hand. Vita adjusted Alec Martin’s shirt and pulled his striped, regulation wool blanket up over his chest. He followed all of her movements with his sad, round eyes. When she looked at him he nodded: there, that’s done. He was a boy no older than Freddy had been when he left home. Vita’s heart felt tight; every single aspect of doctoring challenged her in a different way. Would Alec Martin ever get better?
‘Some of them do,’ Dr. Boutwell told her, washing his hands later at the nurses’ corner, which was what they called the curtained-off space – not even a room – at the back of the ward near the kitchen, with a small Franklin stove used for boiling water for tea, and bars of soap, and clean towels stacked up beside a white china washbasin.
He took a towel from the top of the stack and began to dry his hands. ‘The body is very resilient,’ he said.
She’d made a friend at the Soldiers’ Home, a nurse called Lucy Frost. Lucy was tall with a long face, close-set eyes, and thick straw-like hair. She wore a blue pinstripe dress and a long white apron with an eyeglass and a syringe on two thin chains pinned to the waistband.
‘In the war they only let married women nurse, but they let me train because I’m so ugly,’ she said frankly.
Vita had thought her ugly too at first, but she didn’t anymore. Lucy was cheerful without being cloying, remembered every instruction, and always seemed genuinely glad to see her.
What’s more, she had nerves of steel. Vita had watched Lucy clean and re-bandage a man’s empty eye socket without blanching, and sponge-bathe another man whose back was covered in weeping pustules. In secret, Lucy had married one of the wounded soldiers she’d met in the ward; they lived together with her mother across the river on the Near West Side. It was forbidden for a nurse to see a soldier outside the Home, and marrying one could get you dismissed. (‘Can’t encourage anyone else to break the rule, I suppose,’ Lucy said.)
Her husband had one good leg and one prosthetic leg (donated by the army for his service), and he was good with numbers. Last week he interviewed for a job checking accounts for Mr. John D. Rockefeller at his downtown office. Today, with a beaming expression, Lucy told Vita that he started work there yesterday.
‘Standard Works. They’re making a fortune refining petroleum and shipping it east.’
They were remaking a bed together and Vita, pulling up the starched sheet, thought about Jacob. Again. ‘Shipping it in barrels?’
‘Do the barrels leak?’
Lucy gave her a quick, probing glance. ‘I don’t know. Why?’
‘Oh, someone I knew, a soldier, he was interested in that.’ A wave of guilt swept over her. Someone she knew? Only her husband.
‘All done, Mr. Paxton,’ Lucy said to the soldier coming back to his freshly made bed. ‘Now let’s take a quick look at your sprain.’
Mr. Paxton sat down on the thin mattress, facing them. After they unwrapped his arm Lucy declared herself pleased with his progress. She showed Vita how to gently position Mr. Paxton’s arm in a right angle to prevent hyperextension, and how to wind the clean white bandage firmly but not too tight. Alone at night, Vita studied gray line drawings of the human skeleton: the curved bones of the ribcage (thoracic cavity); and the knotted end of an arm bone (humerus) where it nestled against the shoulder socket. But real arms were heavy and cumbersome. Learning how to handle them took practice.
‘Have you ever heard of Duke of Simpson strapping?’ Lucy asked. ‘That’s for the knee.’
After they settled Mr. Paxton, they went to a man they could practice on, Captain Marcus Jonathan. He wasn’t ill but he had no family and nowhere to go, and since there wasn’t a shortage of beds the nurses made up little ailments for him so he could stay longer. He didn’t mind being used for training, even claimed to like it. Lucy crisscrossed his left kneecap with a bandage, used another one around his lower thigh, and then wove a third bandage around his knee and up his leg and back again to keep everything in place. Vita practiced on his other leg, handling the cloth awkwardly, trying to match Lucy’s motions.
‘Ouch!’ the captain said suddenly, and Vita jumped back. What had she done wrong now? But he winked at her and laughed.
‘Don’t pay him any attention,’ Lucy said, smiling and shaking her head at him. He had stripes of purple scars like claw marks going up one side of his face and had lost an ear in battle, but he joked as though it all meant nothing.
On Saturday Vita and Dr. Boutwell visited one of their pregnant patients, Mary Eileen Doherty, at her home in Irishtown Bend – a flat, swampy neighborhood that the Cuyahoga River looped around and isolated from the rest of the city. Tall factory smokestacks loomed up from behind the houses, and a persistent oily fog blanketed the streets.
The price of food had shot up during the war, and fatherless children sold newspapers and matches on the corners, or swept the streets for pennies. More and more women landed in jail – theft, mostly. Mary Eileen Doherty was one of the lucky ones. At fourteen she found work in a factory sewing umbrellas for three dollars a week, minus the cost of needles and thread. She got married at fifteen, and now at sixteen was having her first baby.
Vita took the streetcar and met Dr. Boutwell on the corner. They walked past wooden houses with tin and tarpaper roofs that were built on stilts above the mud. Black embers from the factory smoke floated over the river.
‘Tell me, if you can,’ Dr. Boutwell said, ‘the four types of labor according to Denham.’ He liked to quiz her as they walked.
‘Natural, Preternatural, Difficult, and Anomalous.’
‘And the difference between Difficult and Anomalous?’
‘A Difficult labor lasts more than twenty-four hours, and an Anomalous labor requires assistance.’
Two bareheaded boys scooped up horse manure in the street with their bare hands – ’They’ll sell it for fuel,’ Dr. Boutwell told her – while women wearing impossibly thin boots skidded along the icy sidewalks, their arms full of ale jugs or straw baskets or babies. Sometimes all three.
Mary Eileen lived in a shack that leaned heavily toward its neighbor, as if drowsy or drunk, with three freshly swept wooden steps leading to a horsehair rope doormat.
‘You just missed it. She was having a fit,’ Mary Eileen’s mother, Mrs. Keene, said at the door as she took their wraps.
Mrs. Keene always looked at Vita with a slightly puzzled expression, as though trying to work out what, exactly, it was about Vita that she did not like. She wore a man’s overcoat and an old-fashioned cap with frayed strings hanging down over her ears like two frizzy ringlets. The kitchen was small and cramped with gingham-blue curtains faded almost to white. Vita could hear the wind whistling through the walls where the tarpaper had peeled.
‘I was only cold,’ Mary Eileen protested. She was sitting by the stove with her feet raised on a stack of pinewood – they didn’t have money for coal. Her normally pretty, heart-shaped face looked puffy and yellow. Her husband – a boy not much older than Mary Eileen – used to dig extensions for the canals until the railroads took over. These days he bet on horse races while he waited for spring and the carpentry jobs that came with it. His preferred place to wait was in the corner tavern.
‘No, not with cold. And not the Ague neither.’ Mrs. Keene suffered herself from bouts of the Ague – malaria, as it was called now. There were times every summer when she was struck with shaking for days on end. And that, Dr. Boutwell once told Vita in private, would never go away.
‘A convulsion? Well then, we must begin your labor at once,’ Dr. Boutwell said.
Mary Eileen blanched. ‘What, today?’
‘Begin it ourselves?’ Vita had read nothing in her books about that.
‘She’s still near a month from her time,’ Mrs. Keene protested.
‘Mary Eileen has what is called eclampsia.’ Dr. Boutwell smiled gently, trying to calm their anxiety. ‘Mrs. Culhane can list some of the common symptoms, if you like.’
‘Swelling, headaches, nausea, or vomiting,’ Vita recited. ‘Changes in vision, shortness of breath, or convulsions. Denham recommends bleeding up to forty ounces.’
Bloodletting, however, was going out of style, so she wasn’t surprised when Dr. Boutwell said, ‘Very good, though of course we won’t do any bleeding today, that’s proved ineffective. Let’s give her an opiate to ease the convulsions, and then small doses of ergot to begin her contractions.’ He turned to Mary Eileen’s mother. ‘You can forgo the dime, at least.’
Normally Dr. Boutwell charged three dollars for common labor and five for labor with instruments; for confinement visits, he charged twenty-five cents. In Irishtown Bend, however, he dropped his prices to a dime a visit and two dollars for labor, no matter what kind, and he would also take payment in food. He was liked here, even welcomed, because he charged so little and was ‘soft-hearted,’ as Vita heard one granny say, although some still preferred the local midwife when they could fetch her sober enough from the tavern.
Dr. Boutwell pulled a stool over to Mary Eileen. She’d gone as stiff as a schoolgirl who didn’t know her lesson.
‘Will I die?’ she asked in a teacup-thin voice.
He took her hand. ‘Oh my dear, I’ve delivered many a baby this way, don’t you worry. You’ll be sitting up asking for raspberries and cream tomorrow, with your little one snug in your arms.’
Mary Eileen laughed a tiny nervous laugh. ‘Raspberries in April!’
The kitchen was not much bigger than Vita’s attic bedroom. That was good; it would be easier to keep warm. Two rickety wooden tables stood together at the end of the room piled with basins and mismatched plates; beneath one of them Vita found a rag basket, and she began stuffing rags along the windowpane to keep out the wind. Meanwhile Mrs. Keene dragged in a mattress and tucked a clean sheet over it.
Trying to start a woman’s labor has been attempted since time immemorial, Dr. Boutwell told them as he boiled his instruments. The Egyptians drank a mixture of honey, wine, and fresh salt. Indian women made tea from powdered rattlesnake rattles and the bark of a pine tree.
‘But we won’t make you drink anything like that,’ he promised, smiling down at Mary Eileen, who had gone white again. ‘We have modern medicines at our disposal.’
After scrubbing his hands thoroughly, Dr. Boutwell proceeded to examine Mary Eileen.
‘Os uteri admitted a finger. Now I’ll break the membranes. That usually begins dilation.’
The accounts of eclampsia Vita had read about were vague, usually skipping over the actual birth, which was where she felt most in need of instruction. A typical case study might only be a few sentences long:
In another case of eclampsia there was profound uraemia, but no convulsions. Delivery was hastened by the use of forceps. The child died of marasmus on the third day.
Marasmus was malnutrition. Not much to help her, there.
Later she would read up on ergot; a German botanist discovered that the black fungus that grew on rye stalks could, as he put it, ‘awaken the pains of the womb.’ European midwives – and after their success, doctors in England and America – began to grind the fungus into powder and use it to induce labor. But the powder, ergot, had recently been denounced by an American doctor, Dr. Hosack. If given in too large doses, ergot could cause intense contractions that the woman’s body wasn’t ready for, and the baby could suffocate or strangle. The medicine had to be measured very carefully, and the source of the ergot was also important. However, Dr. Hosack advised abandonment rather than caution, even though a mother with eclampsia might well die from her seizures. Because even in that dire case – the mother’s death – the baby might still be extracted. And better for the mother to die than the child.
He renamed ergot ‘Death Powder.’ Hard to overcome a moniker like that, and most doctors stopped administering it. But Dr. Boutwell still made cautious use of it, ‘because I don’t care to lose my mothers,’ he told Vita, ‘if there’s any help for it.’
They made Mary Eileen as comfortable as they could and kept the wood stove burning hot. Dr. Boutwell carefully measured out the ergot – three separate doses – and checked for fever. At first Vita read her textbook, occasionally sponging Mary Eileen’s face and neck or giving her sips of beef broth, and then – as the labor progressed – she helped her to stand or sit or lie down as her pain dictated. Mary Eileen’s mother went to the corner tavern and brought back ham sandwiches and fried potatoes, which they ate in shifts – all except Mary Eileen, who had vomited after the third dose of ergot. Vita was prepared to spend the night – she had done this before, at one of the fancy Euclid Avenue houses where the wealthiest Clevelanders lived – but shortly after sunset, groaning and crying, Mary Eileen delivered a slippery infant with a scrunched face like an elderly statesman.
Vita was euphoric. A baby boy. A healthy baby boy. He was greasy and covered in blood, and when he cried his first cry he urinated a thin trickle onto Mrs. Keene’s sleeve. Vita watched his skin color deepen into red as the blood moved though his tiny, threadlike veins. Her head and chest felt light, and as she watched Mrs. Keene swaddle him, mentally noting her technique, she found she couldn’t stop smiling.
But when she turned to Dr. Boutwell she saw that he was frowning. He gently pressed Mary Eileen’s stomach with the flat of his hands. ‘I do believe you are hiding another one from me.’
‘What’s that?’ Mary Eileen asked.
‘Twins,’ Dr. Boutwell said. ‘One crouched behind the other. Don’t worry, your next baby will be faster.’
He put his hands on Mary Eileen’s belly and gently felt for the head.
‘Transverse lie,’ he said, straightening up. ‘We’ll have to pull this little one around.’
He went to his leather medicine case, which was on one of Mrs. Keene’s little tables. ‘If we have trouble,’ he said to Vita in a low voice, ‘we’ll have to use forceps. I’ll boil them now.’
Her euphoria vanished. There existed – though not in Dr. Boutwell’s bag – longer instruments she didn’t want to think about: the blunt hook, the curette, the lever; she’d seen line drawings of them in her books. ‘Tools to extract a dead child,’ read the caption.
‘What’s tranver-lie?’ Mary Eileen asked.
Dr. Boutwell looked at Vita.
‘Transverse lie,’ Vita said. ‘That means your baby is lying across your belly instead of up and down, and so we must turn him round and pull him out. The best way is to pull is by the feet. We call it the podalic version. Podalic means foot, you see, in the Greek.’
‘Will it hurt?’
‘Yes, I’m afraid it will.’
Mary Eileen turned to Dr. Boutwell. ‘Can you do it?’
‘Mrs. Culhane will perform the procedure with my assistance. Here now, breathe this.’ He held a handkerchief under her nose. ‘Just a drop or two of chloroform to ease the pain, but not too much because we need you awake.’
Anxiety clawed at Vita’s stomach. She had seen Dr. Boutwell perform a podalic version once and she had read about the procedure, but she had never performed one herself.
‘The heel, Mrs. Culhane, is what you feel for,’ Dr. Boutwell reminded her, his hand resting on Mary Eileen’s shoulder. ‘Fingers can be mistaken for toes but the heel is unique to the foot.’
Slowly, Vita pushed one hand inside Mary Eileen and kept her other hand, her outside hand, on Mary Eileen’s belly. Not only did she have to rotate the baby but she had to deliver the baby feet first, an arduous process. After Vita found one foot, she felt for the other one. Dr. Boutwell checked her position and nodded. ‘You have both feet? All right now, carefully but firmly pull.’ Mary Eileen, although dosed with chloroform, groaned.
Vita’s first tug was too jerky and she nearly lost hold of a foot. ‘Smoothly; nice and slow,’ Dr. Boutwell said.
She took a breath and gripped the two slippery feet more firmly. Her heart was beating fast but it was important to stay calm, to keep herself from racing through the procedure. Slowly, inch by inch, she drew the baby down. But when at last the feet emerged, she saw that their color was a frightening grayish blue. The legs, the rubbery torso, even the nipples – all blue. Moments later she saw why: the baby’s cord had wrapped itself not once but twice around her waxy neck. A baby girl, not breathing. Not alive.
Vita tried to speak but it came out as a moan. Dr. Boutwell took over, taking the tiny infant from Vita, wrapping her in a blanket, and then laying her little body on Mary Eileen’s chest.
‘I’m afraid this one didn’t make it. I’m sorry, my dear. Her cord got around her neck, it probably happened sometime in the last week. Nothing to be done about it. But you still have a fine baby boy.’
Mary Eileen’s eyes were wet with tears. ‘A little girl?’
‘Chances are that you’ll have another, but you’ll have to say good-bye to this one.’
The baby had fine, reddish-gold hair and fingers that gently curved inward. Puffy cheeks, broad lips, hardly a neck to be seen before her shoulders began. Her partially closed eyes suggested, though Vita couldn’t say why, that her spirit was alive somewhere, just not in her body.
Babies die even as they’re trying to be born. That’s been true forever. But it still doesn’t make sense, Vita thought, looking down at the tiny, still, perfect body. While Mrs. Keene showed Mary Eileen how to nurse the boy, Vita helped Dr. Boutwell deliver the placenta, which came out wet and glistening, embroidered with crisscrossing blue veins and a shimmer of gold. Even as she looked on it was flattening in his hands; an organ, when it was out of the womb, like a spent heart. Vita wiped the sweat from her eyelids with the crook of her arm and wrapped the placenta in cloth, to be carried out with the trash or buried beneath the mud on the riverbank. Her heart, so buoyant before, now felt like an anchor.
Another failure. This was worse, much worse, than being sick to her stomach, or misdiagnosing tapeworm. Dr. Boutwell said the cord had strangled the baby before labor had even begun, but how could he know?
‘It’s difficult and sad,’ he said later, when they were outside and walking back to the streetcar stop. ‘Very sad. But there was nothing you or I could do.’
The night air retained a scent of burning oil from the factories, though the smokestacks were no longer pushing out smoke. In spite of Dr. Boutwell’s assurances, Vita couldn’t help thinking that it must be her fault. Did I turn the baby the wrong way, she wondered? Is that possible? Or was it an earlier mistake, something else I did? Sick at heart: she understood that phrase now.
‘We must count the successes,’ Dr. Boutwell told her.
Count the successes. A depressing thought.
’Study as she likes, and labour as she likes, [the female doctor] will never equal the first-class London surgeon, but she can nevertheless make the village happier, teach hygienic laws which prevent disease, or remove by a little skilled advice the suffering [of a patient].’
(The Spectator, 1862)
April 1866, Boston, Massachusetts
After he returned from Baltimore, Jacob suffered from nightmares more vivid and frightening than ever. He tried sucking on horehound candy during the day and eating crackers with milk before going to bed – both cures Mrs. Humphrey, his charwoman, suggested – but his dreams only got worse, not better.
He didn’t want to blame it on his old mate, Marshall. Maybe it was from the stress of travel? He’d become accustomed to his little house in Boston – in truth half a house, with an older married couple on the other side. He was used to its particular knocks and groans, the lean of afternoon shadows in his bedroom, the chipped third step going from the front door down to the sidewalk. Part of him wanted to just stay inside all day.
In almost every nightmare he was back in prison camp, usually trying to find food. But one night he dreamed that he was hiding, shivering with wet and cold in a muddy hole, petrified with the knowledge that if someone found him he’d be killed. After he climbed into the hole he’d pulled a man’s putrid corpse over him as cover, and he could feel the weight of the man’s back on his own back, dead flesh pressing down on his own. Though he tried to keep himself quiet and still, three men with red paint on their faces found him anyway. They pulled him out but somehow he managed to wrench himself away from their grip, and he began running down a dirt path alive with worms and maggots. The men caught up to him; one grabbed him by the back of his shirt. When they turned him around, Jacob realized that it wasn’t paint on their faces at all, but blood. His blood. He looked down to see a gushing, bleeding wound in his abdomen and he made a gargling sound, more of a moan than a scream, as they dragged him back to the scaffold and the waiting noose.
He woke up shaking and sweating, his heart thundering in his chest. He had dreamed he was Junius Cray.
Junius Cray wasn’t the worst thug at Andersonville, but he was fairly near the top. He was one of the Raiders, a gang of men who patrolled the camp in groups of five or six, scouting out victims. It was rumored that many of the Raiders, Union men all, came from the notorious Five Points in New York, but Jacob had come across more than one with a flat Midwestern accent.
Sometimes a lone Raider was captured and beaten or had half his head shaved, but usually it was the other way around – the Raiders, in a pack, pouncing on men who wouldn’t give up their meager portion of cornmeal, pummeling them bloody. There were ‘streets’ and ‘neighborhoods’ in the prison camp, even a marketplace where you could buy an egg for a dollar, or a quart of sour milk for three. Junius Cray, like most of the Raiders, lived in what was known as Raiders Island in the middle of the camp’s swampy middle; anyone foolish enough to wander into their territory was instantly robbed of whatever they carried or wore. There were no makeshift tents in Raiders Island, just holes in the ground where the men slept or ate.
Caleb used to say that the Raiders were too lazy to build proper shanties – they certainly had the means to steal whatever they needed from their work details or from other men. But Jacob believed they were cannier than that. They understood that these holes helped to enforce their reputation as savage dogs. They lured new arrivals to Raiders Island with promises of food or clothing, only to rob and beat them once they were there. In particular they targeted Tennessee men, since the guards had it out for them, too – southerners who were betrayers to the Southern cause. None of the guards looked twice if any Tennessee soldier ‘accidentally’ died.
Toward the end of the war, when the Raiders began stealing even from the camp’s own stores, Junius Cray was sentenced to hanging. But somehow he escaped from the makeshift platform and hid himself in a hole beneath a corpse. Jacob had been one of the men who found him there. Junius struggled and kicked and tried to bite them as they hauled him back to be hanged.
When he awoke Jacob was terrified, and then confused, and then relieved as he recognized the green glass lamp on his bedside table. He switched it on, a hiss of ignition. The table was covered with a stiff white cotton drape yellowing with age and long immobility, like a doll’s dress. When he turned his head he could make out the ironwork grill outside his window; it was closer to morning than night.
Gingerly, he felt his arms and then his face. No tics. A slight tremor in his left hand. Gradually his heartbeat slowed. The sight of the glass lamp and the yellowing table drape – ordinary objects in an ordinary bedroom – calmed him.
But he knew he wouldn’t get back to sleep. He washed and shaved and dressed in the clothes he’d laid out for himself the night before. There was a medical college in Philadelphia that admitted women – exclusively women – and he’d planned to take the train there today, to look for Vita.
Out on the sidewalk he could smell the usual mixture of chimney smoke and something sea-rotted. Cabs pulled by weary-looking nags clopped slowly past him; he could wave one down, but he wanted to walk off the shakes if he could.
On the train, a grandmother-type carrying a cat in a birdcage passed him a tin of biscuits, and two brothers – identical twins – offered him their extra newspaper. ‘Delivered by mistake,’ one said. For the first two stops, the four of them were the only ones in the car.
Jacob folded his coat to use as a pillow and closed his eyes, hoping to catch up on sleep, but instead he found himself thinking about the little business he and Caleb had got up in camp. They used to cook pancakes out of shared rations and some flour bought from one of the camp sutlers, which they sold in the prison marketplace – ’Broadway,’ the prisoners called it – in the morning. With the extra money they could buy milk or medicine. One morning, it was sometime in the winter, a priest visited the marketplace distributing religious tracts in a drizzling cold rain.
‘Repent your sins,’ he told the prisoners, pushing the tracts into their hands. ‘Read the Bible and repent.’
He spoke as if it was God who’d imprisoned them, and who was judging them (none too compassionately) even now. Two skeletal men began to lob clumps of mud at him: ‘We want bread, not prayers!’ Others followed suit. The priest, red-faced, puffed with anger, with a long smear of mud on his coat and – when he ducked the wrong way – the side of his face, called them animals. ‘You reap what you sow,’ he had snarled at them.
He thrust the tracts into the hands of a young boy and turned on his heel. Later Jacob saw the boy using the paper as kindling.
You reap what you sow.
Why had he dreamed he was Junius Cray? Did he feel guilty about something? About Vita? Now, all these months later, he could admit that maybe he hadn’t taken her dream of becoming a doctor seriously enough. He joked when he was uncomfortable, and he saw how that might have been confusing. But she wasn’t direct with him, either. She ran away without giving him a chance to explain himself. The morning she left, hot sunlight had streamed in through the thin hotel curtains, baking the room even after he struggled to open a window. He waited until the afternoon to leave for the train station, pacing that stifling room, hoping against hope she would return.
He missed her; that was the truth. He was still angry, though, too. But setting his brain to the task of sorting out his emotions was like trying to find water with a peach tree stick. The train car lurched and righted itself, and he could hear the old woman coo to her little cat. After a while the train’s repeated shush and clank began to feel like a lullaby, and Jacob fell into a light, fragile sleep in which – thankfully – Junius Cray did not make an appearance.
Philadelphia was colder than Baltimore, and the women on the sidewalks seemed more subdued; certainly they wore drabber dresses. As he left the train station Jacob felt the wind brush the back of his neck, and when he looked up he could see masses of dense gray clouds inching across the sky as though being pulled by an invisible rope.
The Female Medical College was small enough to fit into a few rented rooms in the Women’s Hospital, which was – he pulled the scrap of paper from his pocket to check the address – on North College Avenue. He shifted his carryall to his other hand and began to walk down the street. If he found a decent hotel along the way he would reserve a room; if not, he would just have to find one later.
He had only gone a couple of blocks before small, hard drops of rain started peppering his shoulders. He stopped to open his umbrella. He was standing outside a tavern with the ‘Best Dutch gin in the city,’ according to a card in the window, and he considered going inside to wait out the rain but instead he pressed on. The wind began blowing behind him, and by the time he turned onto North College Avenue his trousers clung wetly to the backs of his knees.
The hospital was a dark brick edifice in the middle of the block, with the aloof appearance he associated with banks. As if he had willed it, a young woman came out the front door and down the steps as he approached. She was hugging a load of heavy books in front of her chest and she wore a man’s gray overcoat, which was oddly fetching. Her air of inner concentration reminded him of Vita.
‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘Are you a student here? At the college?’
She nodded, taking him in with cool, blue eyes. Her expression changed – it became just as shuttered as the brick building behind her.
Jacob paused, trying to decide which of Vita’s names to use.
‘Do you have a question? Or did you only come here to scoff?’
She made a face to illustrate, presumably, his opinion of her. ‘The woman doctor.’
‘No, no. Nothing like that. I’m looking for someone, that’s all. Vita Tenney. Or Vita Culhane.’
‘Which one? Or are there two?’
Now she was mocking him. The rain came down harder. The girl had no umbrella and Jacob offered her his.
‘No, thank you.’
He persisted, holding it over her head. ‘I have another,’ he lied.
She shifted her books and took it. Her fingers were stained with ink. Also like Vita.
‘Vita Tenney Culhane,’ Jacob said.
‘Why do you want her?’
‘I’m her brother.’
How was it that ‘husband’ seemed threatening? But it did.
‘Well, I don’t know her. And as there are only eight of us, I can say for a fact she’s not going to the school.’
‘Is there anyone she might be apprenticing with? I’m thinking of a professor, a doctor. She would be looking for a preceptor.’
The girl thrust the umbrella back, ready to be rid of him. ‘I haven’t heard anyone mention anyone called Vita.’
‘Please, you keep it. Just one more thing. Do you know if the Cleveland Medical College admits women students?’
‘They don’t, the rogues. Not anymore. They used to.’
She was holding his umbrella with her left hand and she jiggled up her books with her right. ‘All right?’ She wanted to be off.
‘Thank you,’ he said. When she was a few feet past him he turned and called, ‘Good luck with your studies!’
Nothing, not even an acknowledging shrug. Is this what Vita will be like, Jacob wondered? Hard and embittered? Defended against – what did the girl call it – scoffs? Before he’d stopped her, she’d had a different look altogether, absorbed and placid. He was the one who disturbed that. Raindrops collected on the brim of his hat.
He ducked into the bar with the good Dutch gin and had a drink, and then another one, and then he went to a hotel around the corner that the barkeep recommended. In all that time the rain never stopped, though it never got worse, either. It was still raining when he got on the train the next morning, and the wet weather lasted all the way to New Haven. Boston was overcast, but dry. When Jacob unlocked his front door and scooped up the mail from where it had pooled under the mail slot, he saw the letter from Amelia on top.
’Ladies are all very well in their place, and that is looking after the latest Paris fashions and making tea at home.’
(The Medical Press and Circular, 1870)
April 1866, Lark’s Eye, Massachusetts
Marie was helping Mrs. O. clean the lamp chimneys when she heard the front door open and a slow, heavy tread as someone descended the kitchen stairs.
‘Mitty!’ Amelia said, coming into the kitchen. She kissed her and plunked herself down at the table. ‘Oof, I didn’t think I would make it.’ She unfolded a napkin and mopped her forehead and cheeks. ‘It’s as hot as summer outside.’
Marie had her sleeves rolled up and a big apron tied around her neck. She pulled on a pair of old cleaning gloves, tied a piece of sponge around the end of a long pine twig that Mrs. O. had snapped off from one of the trees in the yard, and began rubbing the inside of a lamp chimney. As she worked on the smoke-coated glass, it began to look as though someone were etching out a secret code, like the Irish Ogham – scratches on a post. Meanwhile Mrs. O. was constructing new lamp wicks out of strips of canton flannel.
‘Would you like to help us?’ Marie asked Amelia.
‘Let me catch my breath first.’
Amelia was six months pregnant and enjoyed the pretense of frailty. However, if anything she seemed healthier and better-looking than she was a year ago. Her lips were full and very red, her face had widened, and her cheekbones were more prominent. But she liked to heave herself about a little, and beg off chores. Gemma had begun working for her in town, and with Arthur’s practice only recently stuttering back to life, Marie was glad to have Holland pay Gemma’s wages for a while. She wasn’t worried – not very worried – but she had to be careful.
‘We were discussing your sister,’ she said.
Amelia rolled her eyes. ‘What else?’ But Marie noticed a sly look coming over her. ‘Any news?’
Mrs. O. measured a long piece of flannel and folded it down to the width of a wick, overcasting the edge. ‘She’s just getting herself to some college talks. Isn’t that what you said? No doubt she’ll come back when she’s spent all her money.’
‘I do wish she’d send her address.’
‘Maybe she’s afraid Jacob will find her and drag her back.’ Amelia’s eyes glittered at the thought.
‘She’s all right,’ Mrs. O. said, ‘only stubborn. But I’ll say it again: it was a wicked thing for a girl to do.’
Marie picked up another lamp chimney. ‘She and Jacob must have quarreled. He didn’t say so, but they must have.’
They kept their voices low although Arthur was, as usual, shut away in his office reading newspapers, or cutting out articles and pasting them into a new scrapbook he was making all about one battle, the first battle of Bull Run, and the mistakes that were made there.
‘Maybe I should go to Boston myself to look for her.’
Mrs. O. blew out air. ‘It’s the husband’s job to do that, not yours. Not anymore.’
Marie had had a letter this morning from her friend Deborah Delong, and another last week from her cousin Maria. She found she was enjoying her renewed correspondence with its family news, gossip, even recipes. But no one had seen Vita. Marie considered putting an advertisement in city papers (‘Please write to this address if you have seen . . .’), but that made Vita seem like a criminal, or a dog. She swung back and forth between thinking she was doing too little or too much. These days, between her renewed correspondence – she’d begun writing letters to acquaintances in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and even to an old neighbor who’d moved to the Dakota Territory, although she didn’t think Vita would get that far – and her work with Mrs. O. now that Gemma wasn’t there every day, she’d nearly stopped having her biweekly tea. There was too much to do.
‘How’s Sweetie?’ Amelia asked.
Sweetie had not been as upset when Vita left as she had been when Freddy left – she pulled out a few of her feathers but was mostly content to chew on paper rolls – however she fell ill again last week and Marie had to feed her sugar water through a dropper every four hours, even at night.
‘She’s recovered. Dar likes to have her in his office now.’
‘He’s moved her perch in there.’
‘But he hates Sweetie!’
‘I wouldn’t say hate.’
‘He thinks she’s unhygienic.’ Amelia mimicked her father’s tone. No one smiled.
Marie was scraping the bottom of the filmy lamp glass in short, hard thrusts. ‘Sweetie reminds him of Freddy, he says.’
Freddy had had the same black hair and dark blue eyes as Vita, and for a long while, before he shot up like a bean on a pole, they were the same height. People used to think they were twins. Vita was always better at their shared lessons even though she was younger, but she also didn’t mind if Freddy teased her – perhaps that helped balance things out. Marie suspected Vita sometimes finished his schoolwork for him so they could go out and climb trees. Arthur liked to praise Freddy’s work but Vita’s was never neat enough, or the graph line she drew wasn’t perfectly straight, or she didn’t completely erase a previous answer. There was always something.
Marie pulled out the dirtied sponge and said, ‘It’s a comfort to him now, having Sweetie.’
‘If only that war had never happened,’ Mrs. O. said. ‘That’s what I blame this on. The war’s what gave Vita ideas.’
‘Vita’s always had ideas,’ Amelia said.
Once, when the war was going badly – and in the first three years the war was always going badly – Marie had gone in secret to a Copperhead meeting down at the little schoolhouse on the other side of the Lark’s Eye Bay. She’d hitched up Miss Freckles, their old pony, to the pony cart, and drove herself with only the light of the moon as a guide. She was tired of only contributing tablecloths and sheets to the cause; she wanted to do something, anything, to end it. She rode past the stone farmsteads and, closer to town, two-story clapboard houses with double-deck porches. A lamp was burning in the school window as a signal, and there was an armed sentry at the door. Copperheads, who were opposed to the war, had to meet in secret.
It was after midnight when the meeting began. When Marie walked in she saw to her surprise that there were probably forty people cramming themselves on the squat benches meant for children, all Northerners who wanted to end the war. Many of them Marie didn’t even recognize; where had they come from, up the coast? Like a Quaker meeting, the men (she was the only woman) rose from their bench when they wanted to address the room. At first the speeches felt sympathetic – we don’t want the slaughter of our boys to continue – but it quickly turned ugly. An old man with long ragged hair and a boil on his neck declared that slavery wasn’t the cause of the war, but abolition. Abolition, that’s what needs to be abolished, he’d said. Marie had been sickened by the yells of agreement and stamping feet. The next man spoke of the importance of keeping free blacks from northern soil. ‘We don’t want ’em either,’ he said. She couldn’t even bring herself to nod to the sentry as she left. When she picked up the pony cart reins, she saw that her hands were shaking with anger.
Amelia was stroking her stomach gently with one outstretched finger. ‘I wonder how it is that Gemma isn’t pregnant yet. She got married before I did.’
Marie and Mrs. O. exchanged a glance.
‘Amelia, you know there are ways to keep from getting pregnant,’ Marie said.
‘Why on earth would you want to? No, it’s because I’m lucky. I’m always lucky.’
Marie felt a prick of irritation but she tried to get past it. ‘Well yes, you and Holland have been very fortunate.’
‘I’m always fortunate,’ Amelia said.
‘Don’t tempt fate,’ Mrs. O. warned. Using a fork, she spread apart the new wicks she’d made, which were soaking in strong-smelling vinegar in an old pie tin. Amelia wrinkled her nose.
‘I mean it. Many girls won’t have husbands now, because of the war, or their husbands will be defective – no, Mitty, it’s true; however sad it is, we have to admit that it’s true. And Holland is – well, you can’t even tell that he limps anymore, not really, not with his new shoes. He has a good job, and he’s handsome. And soon we’ll have a beautiful little baby. Vita has missed out on everything. She could have had it but she threw it away. Really, Mitty, I have no sympathy for her.’
‘Yes, I can tell.’
‘Jacob is handsome, too. A little jittery from the war, but that’s all. She was cruel to leave him. Don’t you think? You agree with me, don’t you Mrs. O.?’
Mrs. Oakum sniffed. ‘Well. Not that I’d say it like that.’
‘And don’t you think that if we can help Jacob we should?’
Marie could feel the muscles at the back of her neck tighten. She put down the sponge. ‘Amelia, what do you know?’
Amelia grinned in victory. ‘Look at this.’ She pulled a letter out of her dress pocket. ‘From Vita to Gemma last week.’
‘Amelia! You took someone’s letter? Someone’s private property?’
‘Gemma left it at my house! And the house is my property. It was in a kitchen drawer, just stuffed in, maybe she forgot it.’
‘You know that that’s wrong.’ Marie felt competing emotions unfurl within her: shock and disapproval and gratitude.
‘I’ll take it,’ Mrs. O. said. She held out her hand. ‘And so’s you know, I agree with your mother. Never once in all my life in this house has anyone taken my letters.’
‘You don’t get any letters,’ Amelia said, but she handed it over.
‘Now I’m not going to read it, I’m only going to look at the return address.’ Mrs. O. glanced at Marie. ‘Cleveland,’ she said.
‘I know! I was shocked! I’ve already written to Jacob,’ Amelia told them, not bothering to hide the triumph in her voice.
‘You wrote to him? Without talking to me first?’
‘I think he has a right to know,’ Amelia said.
She looks very prim, Marie thought, but she can be as sneaky as Freddy. ‘What did he say?’
‘He hasn’t answered yet. I only just wrote on Tuesday.’
Cleveland. Was there a medical college in Cleveland? Marie didn’t know. She wanted to read the letter. But she shouldn’t. She shouldn’t even ask Amelia about it, but she couldn’t help herself. ‘And Vita, is she all right?’
‘She’s working with a doctor. Boutwell, his name is.’
Boutwell. The name rang a bell. One of her sister Clara’s acquaintances? It would come to her. The lamps had all been wiped, and were lined up on a clean cloth on the kitchen table. Marie turned her back – glad that her face was hidden – and began loading them on a tray.
‘I’ll bring these upstairs,’ she told Mrs. O.
Her heart was singing with relief.
’To live a chaste life, avoid food containing aphrodisiac stimulants, such as coffee, eggs, and oysters. Remember that it is chiefly the action of the mind that stimulates excessive secretion.’
(Tokology, A Book for Every Woman, Dr. Alice B. Stockham, M.D., 1905)
May 1866, Cleveland, Ohio
There was a blacksmith up the block from Dr. Boutwell’s office who worked with the long double doors of his workshop thrown open to the sidewalk; passersby learned to cross the street to avoid flying sparks. On her low days, the hammering thuds, sometimes crisp and sometimes muted, made Vita think of goblins knocking at her heart.
Not only had she left Jacob, but she had left him for nothing. She was no good at doctoring. She could memorize conditions and cures all she wanted, but when it came to actual patients she kept getting it wrong. One night she dreamed that she was back in the little tarpaper kitchen with Mary Eileen Doherty, but instead of attending to Mary Eileen she was staring at the kitchen curtains as they shifted about in a draft. When she looked down, she found the dead baby in her arms. Cold legs, little blue toes, toenails like grains of rice. She woke up thinking: it’s my fault for not paying close enough attention.
She always thought she was different than Amelia and the other girls back in Lark’s Eye, that she was smarter and more capable. But she wasn’t. Don’t give yourself airs, Amelia often told her. Don’t read books in town, don’t memorize Latin conjugations, don’t want anything more than what’s placed before you. Maybe she should have listened.
She dreaded going back to sleep and dropping into another dream, so Vita lit a candle and reread Denham’s chapter on anomalous births until it was time for breakfast. In the dining room she found Soot already at the table holding Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper unfolded in front of him.
‘G’morning!’ he said. ‘Do you have the book?’
Last night he had successfully recited his multiplications tables up to and including the eights; as a reward, he was allowed to keep Vita’s anatomy book for the whole day today.
‘I left it outside your bedroom door. Your mother doesn’t like you reading at the table, you know.’ (‘I don’t think it’s very nice to look at a man’s private innards while you eat.’)
Soot shook his newspaper irritably like a middle-aged banker, and Vita tried to hold back a smile. She could so easily picture him wearing a little mustache, a walking stick at the ready. Small for his age, Soot had to hold his elbows up to keep the newspaper off the table; at last he gave up, folded it in thirds, and laid it beside his plate.
Outside the window, Vita could see men walking down the sidewalk with handkerchiefs held against their mouths and noses. The morning was unusually dark, and a black, greasy smoke hung in the air. Another fire probably at one of the oil stills. It was cold, too, a shift back toward winter, although a few days ago, at the Soldiers’ Home, it felt almost like spring. A couple of windows at one end of the ward were open, and Vita felt a fingertip of breeze on the back of her neck as she bent to clean a boil from a young soldier’s shoulder. Her father used to call a boil a wen. She thought of Dar, who had a very gentle touch, as she mixed an ounce of origanum oil, an ounce of spirits of wine, and an ounce of spirits of turpentine in a shallow bowl. She spread the mixture on a rectangle of soft linen and tried to apply it as tenderly as she could to the boy’s soft skin.
His name was Walter Cutter, and like Jacob his hands shook when he was anxious or if he heard a sudden noise – they had to relocate another soldier because he kept a loud pocket watch on the wicker table between their beds. While Vita cleaned his boil, he tried to hide his shaking hands under the bed sheet. But he saw that she noticed them anyway.
‘Don’t tie my hands, please don’t,’ he begged her; this was Dr. Hotchkiss’s treatment for shakes.
Her heart had turned over. He had a round face, hooded eyes, and his voice was light and timid. Only the finest baby hairs grew over his top lip. He was not much older than Soot – he’d been a drummer during the last six months of the war.
‘No, I won’t do that, Mr. Cutter. How about some warm milk instead?’ Lucy liked to recommend warm milk with a dash of vanilla to offset tremors. ‘I can help you with the cup,’ Vita assured him. But she saw he was afraid of her, that he mistrusted her. She didn’t know how to inspire confidence the way Dr. Boutwell and Lucy could.
Add that to the list.
Before she served herself breakfast, Vita gave Soot a professional look-over. Last month he’d had a mild case of pneumonia and was slowly – very slowly – recovering. He had no great wish, Vita suspected, to go back to school.
‘Let me feel your lymph nodes,’ she said, and Soot allowed her to lay two fingers on his neck. She hated to think of him drumming into a battle like Walter Cutter. But if Soot had been born two years earlier, he might have done.
She took her hand away. ‘Not swollen in the least. I think you’re completely recovered.’
‘Yes – just about.’ He managed a cough.
While she helped herself to eggs Soot stirred several large teaspoons of sugar into his coffee cup, which, by the look of it, contained mostly cream.
‘What’ll you do today, d’you expect?’ he asked. Since he’d been ill she’d been telling him patient stories; as a double benefit, this also worked to help her remember the cases and cures.
‘It’s Monday, so we’ll see patients in the office.’
‘Will you see that girl with the butter bean plant growing in her ear?’
‘No, we removed that.’
‘Can she hear again now? Could she hear this?’ He whistled softly.
‘I’ve no doubt she could.’
‘If she had pushed the seed into her eye,’ he asked, ‘would it have grown itself there?’
‘A seed likes a warm, moist spot. An eye isn’t really warm enough. Also, don’t you think it would have bothered her much sooner if it had lodged in her eyelid? The palpebra. That’s the lower lid.’
A delighted expression washed over his face. ‘If she didn’t, it would creep up all over her eyeball. What’s the science name for eyeball?’
‘Scientific. The eyeball has a number of different parts. The cornea, the choroid, the retina . . . look it up in the book, why don’t you. When I get home this afternoon I’ll quiz you on that, and on your nines and tens.’
She stacked her empty coffee cup and saucer on her plate and stood up. She could hear Reverend Simpers coming down the stairs with his slow, important-sounding gait. Did she have time to slip something for lunch into her pocket? She shook out her handkerchief.
‘Tens are easy! Will I get to keep the book longer this time?’
‘I need it tonight, but you can have it again tomorrow. If you’ve got your nines and tens memorized.’
‘Good morning Stewart,’ Reverend Simpers said.
She hadn’t been quick enough. The reverend stood in the doorway surveying the room with his usual air of ownership. Everything about him from his stiff collar to his waved hair – how long did it take him to wave it every morning, she wondered? – was precise and unyielding and stern. He was like a false prince in a fairy tale: handsome but sly.
‘And how’s our little doctor? I wonder,’ he said as Vita tried to make her way around him, ‘if you don’t mind, would you pour me a cup of coffee before you go? My hands are a bit shaky this morning.’
His hands were as still as tree stumps but he loved to find excuses for women to wait on him. She could smell the lemon he used in his hair to keep it yellow – this according to Soot, who overheard him asking Gracelin, their cook, for one. She poured him the cup of coffee, skimping on the cream. Then, before he could ask for anything else, she made her escape into the smoky street.
To Vita’s surprise, Dr. Boutwell was already with a patient when she got to the office. A young man was sitting on the stool near the window, holding a bloodied grain sack against the side of his face.
‘Found him waiting by the door. An accident with a hook in his meat truck.’
Blood was streaming down the young man’s temple, though some of it might be the cow’s, he explained. Dr. Boutwell flushed the wound with water, and then he threaded a small needle and selected a needle holder, which resembled a pair of scissors with flat blades and grooves at the end to grasp the needle.
‘Some say that a scalp laceration can be closed by tying the hair on either side of it into a knot, but I’ve never seen how that can work. Blood makes everything slippery.’ He handed the needle holder to Vita. ‘You must avoid the hairs of his eyebrow, if you can.’
The slice was about an inch long. Vita applied pressure in the direction of the needle and she rested her forefinger on the flat surface of the needle holder to keep her hand steady. Curve and sweep upward, she thought. After four stitches she looped the long end of the thread around the needle holder, grasped the shorter end, and pulled the wound ends together. Then she looped the long end of the thread around the holder in the opposite way.
Dr. Boutwell nodded. ‘Now once more, for a firm knot.’
If she pulled too tightly the skin would pucker; that had happened before. Slowly now, she thought, bending over her work.
‘Well done,’ Dr. Boutwell said when Vita snipped the thread end and stood back. The stitches were tiny and perfect, and she had created them. She wanted to just stand there and admire each one.
‘Will I have a scar?’ the man asked as Dr. Boutwell began wrapping a clean bandage over his wound.
‘You’re lucky you aren’t a quarter inch taller,’ Dr. Boutwell told him.
That afternoon Vita saw her first case of syphilis. They were treating a man who had overturned a coffee pot in the back office of his shop and badly burned his hand. Dr. Boutwell immersed the man’s hand and wrist in a solution of sodium carbonate, while Vita prepared a lotion of carbolic acid and olive oil. The shopkeeper, Mr. Mankrik, watched Vita with an annoyed expression, as though she were responsible for his accident. When the lotion was ready Vita applied it to the scaly areas of his skin with cotton batting.
Afterward, Mr. Mankrik tested his hand, curling it into a fist. ‘By the by, can I have something for my throat?’ He spoke with a low, hoarse voice. ‘It’s been acting up this last month. A gargle, if you have it?’
‘Your throat has been sore for a month?’
‘A month or two!’ Dr. Boutwell turned to wash his hands again. ‘I’d better have a look.’
Mr. Mankrik took off his collar and tie. There were white patches on his throat and a speckled rash that started below his collarbone. Dr. Boutwell asked the man to unbutton his shirt.
A glance at Vita. ‘What, and with her here?’
‘She’s my assistant. Remember who bandaged your hand for you?’
The sky was still hazy with factory smoke, and Vita brought over another kerosene lamp for more light. Dr. Boutwell found the primary lesion, which was already healing, but the rash had spread over the man’s barrel chest.
‘Why didn’t you see me about this?’ he asked. ‘You have syphilis. You’ll need to be treated. I’ll give you medicine to rub on yourself, and you must use it every day. Come back and see me next week.’
Syphilis! Vita looked at his rash more closely. Coppery rash; hoarse voice; throat inflammation; yellow skin. It added up. The man had curly hair that was thinning on top, a thick neck, and close-set eyes behind spectacles. Not someone you would peg as a Lothario.
‘Are you married?’ Vita asked.
‘Tell your wife she must come in, too.’
‘But her throat is fine!’
‘She’ll need the medicine, in any case.’
Mr. Mankrik looked at Dr. Boutwell for confirmation. ‘She will?’
‘You heard Mrs. Culhane,’ Dr. Boutwell told him sternly. ‘Bring your wife in tomorrow, Mr. Mankrik. And any other woman with whom you’ve had relations.’
‘But I never!’ Now he looked scared. ‘I go to church every Sunday,’ he protested.
Dr. Boutwell raised his eyebrows. ‘Many men do.’
On Friday, at the Soldiers’ Home, there was another case.
‘A coincidence?’ Vita asked. The man had heavy eyelids and a droopy lower lip. An inexplicable smell of moss hung about him.
Dr. Boutwell shook his head. ‘This is what happens after a war. Soon enough women will start coming in with their children; the men infect them by sharing their bowls and spoons. Be sure to wash your hands with mercury compound after every examination.’
He asked Vita to mix up the ointment while he continued his rounds. After she put the ingredients together, she sat on the empty bed near the infected soldier and began to stir it with a short wooden spoon. There were more empty beds today than occupied. The Soldiers’ Home was thinning out. Most of the soldiers passing through Cleveland now only received a check-up and a meal before they went on their way. Vita missed the one-armed veteran, Mr. Bollinger, who used to go around reading Dickens to soldiers confined to bed; he’d found a teaching job in Dayton. And Captain Marcus Jonathan, who let them practice bandaging on him, left to be a janitor in the Finnish Hall, where he was given a bed in the basement. Soon the Home would be shut down altogether, although the streets were still full of veterans looking for work or begging for coins near churches.
‘Army sent me all the way to Texas,’ the soldier told Vita while she stirred up his black ointment. ‘Not much war going on in Texas.’ He sounded aggrieved.
‘You’re lucky. You could have been killed.’
‘Me? There’s no bullet made could kill me.’
‘No one is safe from a well-aimed bullet, Mr. Drummond.’
‘I’ve got a buffalo hide. Bullets jump right off.’
Vita pushed the ointment into a squat jar. ‘This is for you to take with you. You must spread it on yourself every day for a month.’
Drummond took the jar, slumping forward and cocking his head to look into it. He had a bad eye, she realized. Toward the end of the war they were taking almost anybody, thrusting a gun in their hand and hoping for the best.
‘How about if you lather it on for me?’ he asked slyly.
‘Certainly. And I’ll put a good dose in your mouth as well, which might stop you from talking nonsense. No man has buffalo skin. And your condition, syphilis, that’s a serious condition.’
But he didn’t seem the least bit ashamed or fearful. After writing him out instructions – ‘Can you read, Mr. Drummond?’ ‘Most every letter,’ he joked – Vita went to find Dr. Boutwell. He was standing with an orderly by the bed of a soldier who’d arrived just that morning, and had been trying to leave ever since. His name, according to the card attached to his belt loop, was Captain Tamby.
‘Let me go, I’m hot, I’m drowning,’ Captain Tamby kept saying.
‘Sepsis, I’m afraid.’ Dr. Boutwell said to Vita in a low voice. ‘The arm will have to go. Take a look.’
She asked the captain if she might take a look at his arm and, turning it over, saw the telltale red line stretching up from his infected hand toward his elbow.
‘I’ve sent for Dr. Hotchkiss. One of the nurses told me that he stepped out for a newspaper.’
‘Why wait?’ Vita asked.
‘We need a surgeon.’
‘But you’re a surgeon.’
‘We can wait for Dr. Hotchkiss. Ten minutes won’t make a difference.’
‘But – ’ Vita looked at the distressed soldier, who was breathing rapidly. She put a hand to his forehead. ‘He’s got a fever.’
‘His lips aren’t blue and his heart rate is fine.’
She put two fingers alongside Captain Tamby’s throat. ‘It feels a little elevated to me. Don’t worry, I can assist you.’
Dr. Boutwell shook his head, not meeting her eye, and she thought: He doesn’t trust me. I’ve failed too many times.
‘I’ll be all right,’ she assured him.
‘I promise I can do this.’
Dr. Boutwell snapped. ‘I won’t take it off, I tell you!’
Both she and the orderly stared at him in surprise, and Captain Tamby took advantage of their inattention to wrench himself away and pull up his shirt. ‘I need a bath, I need water. Water for my belly, can’t you see.’
‘What’s all this?’ Dr. Hotchkiss asked, coming up to them. Lucy, who’d gone to fetch him, stood behind him still wearing her heavy cape.
‘Dr. Hotchkiss,’ Dr. Boutwell said, clearly relieved. ‘A case of sepsis, I’m afraid. The man’s all right; a little delirious though.’
Vita listened as the two men consulted with each other. She had never seen Dr. Boutwell refuse to help anyone before. He was a generous man who considered his patients before anything else, and the most competent doctor she knew – certainly more knowledgeable than her father, even in his good days.
‘Best to start straight away. You’ll assist me?’ Dr. Hotchkiss asked Dr. Boutwell.
Dr. Boutwell smiled stiffly. ‘I’m afraid that isn’t possible. But Mrs. Culhane, here . . .’ Both men looked at her. ‘She is quite able. She can assist in my place.’
Vita and Lucy hurried along after Dr. Hotchkiss to the little surgery behind the ward where they performed minor procedures. Vita felt for her notebook in her dress pocket while Lucy switched on the string of overhead lights and checked the stack of clean bandages. She gave Vita an encouraging smile. Vita smiled back, she hoped convincingly, and turned to help the orderly lift Captain Tamby onto the high, white bed. Then they all washed their hands.
The mattress had cloth straps sewn into its sides, and they had to tie the captain’s wrists down so they could examine him. Dr. Hotchkiss asked Vita to take his pulse, and she felt the inside wrist with her fingertips.
She shook out a few drops of chloroform from its lemon-colored bottle onto a clean sponge and held it under the captain’s nose while Lucy held his head still. His nostrils, flaring angrily, were very white, the rims like curved fingernail clippings. But after a minute the drug took effect and he closed his eyes, relaxing his shoulders. Lucy pulled down the bed sheet just enough to expose the captain’s infected arm.
The orderly took a step toward the door when he saw Dr. Hotchkiss strapping a tourniquet onto the captain’s arm. It had a leather strap and a steel buckle, and once he got the contraption positioned where he wanted it, he tightened the buckle’s metal screw. Vita saw the orderly blanch and put his hand to his mouth, and although Lucy shook her head vigorously at him he slipped out anyway, closing the door behind him. The lights – gas lights, donated by the gas company at the beginning of the war – flickered for a moment.
Dr. Hotchkiss chose a large, single-edged knife from the instruments laid out on a clean towel on the trolley. He began making a circular incision below the elbow. Vita felt warm saliva pool on her tongue and she disciplined herself to inhale slowly, exhale, and inhale slowly again.
‘Mrs. Culhane, please use forceps to clamp this vessel.’
Vita picked up a pair of tiny sterilized forceps from the trolley. The skin of the man’s arm was pulled back to reveal a roadwork of vessels; each one looked like a little white pipe. She clamped the forceps on the one he indicated, and Dr. Hotchkiss said, ‘Fine, keep going.’
She turned for more forceps, clamping them on the vessels, until at last Dr. Hotchkiss said that would do. He was ready to saw the round bone. It seemed impossible, but Captain Tamby was still breathing; Vita could see his chest moving while the doctor cut through the round bone. After the arm fell away, Lucy covered it with a sheet and took it from the room while Dr. Hotchkiss began sewing up the man’s skin with large stitches.
Vita pulled out her notebook. There was still wet blood on her knuckles – she wiped her hands hastily with a rag – but she wanted to make a drawing of the doctor’s stitch before she forgot it.
‘Keeping notes, eh?’ Dr. Hotchkiss asked, picking up a clean towel. He mopped perspiration off his beard, and then folded the towel to a point and dabbed at his moustache. ‘They train all you ladies quite rigorously here. You’ll make a good nurse one day.’
She supposed he could tell she wasn’t one of the proper nurses because she was not wearing the long fever-proof dress they all wore, nor the tall round hat that served no purpose, as far as she could tell, except to mark them as professionals.
‘I’m studying to be a doctor,’ she told him. She was feeling reckless and proud. The last time she was in the little surgery with Dr. Hotchkiss, it had been to re-stitch a soldier’s chest wound that had reopened. After he removed the old sutures and cleaned the area, Dr. Hotchkiss had taken Vita’s hands without asking and positioned her fingers on the torn flesh to hold it closed while he sewed. She tried not to look at the man’s yellow-and-plum-colored wound, shaped like an upside-down funnel, but when Dr. Hotchkiss finished and left the room she had vomited into the wastebasket.
Now she was elated with herself not only for her work but also for not getting sick. It had been weeks, she realized, since a procedure had made her sick. Maybe there was hope for her.
‘Well you’ll do very well,’ Dr. Hotchkiss said. He had the deep, well-modulated voice of a man confident in his opinions. ‘Very well indeed.’
For a moment, Vita glowed.
‘Why don’t you come see me at the Charity Hospital when the Soldiers’ Home closes, and we’ll find you a nursing job. After you’ve completed your training.’
She realized that he hadn’t heard her. She raised her voice.
‘Yes but you see, I’m studying to be a doctor, not a nurse.’
‘Mm, that’s fine,’ he said, beginning to sort his instruments. Without looking up, he asked if she would bring him some tea.
A warm wave of embarrassment flooded through her. Tea! She strode out to the ward, her cheeks burning. Half of the blows came unexpectedly, like this one. At least with Reverend Simpers she knew to put up her defenses immediately. When she’d been clamping the tiny white vessels, she’d imagined her father standing there with Dr. Hotchkiss, watching with his hands behind his back. In her fantasy, he was nodding approvingly at her work. She knew it was childish, but she wanted recognition. You’ll be a fine doctor one day.
Still, she found she couldn’t ignore Dr. Hotchkiss, as he ignored her. He had just saved a man’s life. Two older nurses – real nurses, with the silly round hats – were making up one of the beds at the end of the aisle. Vita made her way over to them and relayed the doctor’s request for tea.
Afterward she found Dr. Boutwell in the front room near where the veterans lined up to get pension forms. He was leaning against the wall smoking a cigar, his creased doctor’s bag on the floor by his feet. As soon as he saw Vita he held out her cloak to her. He was already wearing his overcoat.
‘I wasn’t sick!’ she told him. ‘I didn’t feel sick at all. I even helped clamp the blood vessels.’
Dr. Boutwell said, ‘That’s wonderful,’ and watched her do up her cloak’s large brass buttons.
‘He told me I would make a very good nurse.’ She tried to laugh it off. ‘Even after I told him I was studying to be a doctor.’
Outside the wind rose to meet them, bringing with it the smell of burned oil. Dr. Boutwell seemed far away; was he even listening? They crossed the busy street to walk along the lake, where barges were chuffing to bring in their cargo. Further out over the water a mist had begun rolling toward the shore, like an army of men in concentrated pursuit of their prey. A few soft raindrops fell against her face.
‘Why wouldn’t you assist Dr. Hotchkiss yourself?’ Vita asked. She was hoping he would say something complimentary – I knew you could it, or even, it’s good training for you – but instead he said, ‘It’s better for me not to.’
That surprised her. ‘Why?’
He was looking straight ahead. She thought he hadn’t heard her over the wind.
‘Why is it better?’ she repeated.
‘I performed too many of them.’ His voice was strained and high.
‘Too many of them?’
She glanced at his face. He still wouldn’t look at her. As they approached the corner, horses clopped by in either direction, competing with the wind.
‘I shouldn’t go there. I thought I could help, but I shouldn’t go.’
‘You mean to the Soldiers’ Home?’
‘I shouldn’t even be doctoring, but I have to make a living, don’t I?’
‘You shouldn’t be doctoring?’ That made no sense. ‘You’re the best doctor I know!’
He frowned. ‘It’s been a long day,’ he said, ‘and it’s starting to rain. I’ll pay for a cab.’
‘But we’re so close now.’ The streetcar stop was half a block away.
He raised his cane anyway. A cab drove by them, the horse kicking up water from a gravelly puddle. Vita had never seen Dr. Boutwell downhearted before. She felt the urge to comfort him.
‘You were a good friend to Freddy. I know he missed you when you left.’
‘He was the only one who did.’
‘I’m sure that’s not true!’
‘It is true. They wanted me gone. They told me so.’
‘Who told you?’
‘After I took off Maddock’s arm in Chancellorsville. The lieutenant colonel. He said to me, ‘I needed my arm, and you took it from me.’’
‘Then he was a fool. You probably saved his life.’
‘I did save his life, but it didn’t matter. They thought I was using the army hospital as my own personal training ground. As if I would do anything but try to save those boys! You can’t imagine the piles of arms and legs outside the hospital tent. The ears, the feet, even scalps. And the dead house, that was its own kind of hell.’
Vita didn’t know what to say.
‘After his arm was gone, the lieutenant ordered me to cut back all amputations by half. But how could I do that in good conscience?’
‘What did you say to him?’
‘What could I say? I left.’
‘You left? But – ’ she thought about Freddy’s letters. ‘I thought – Freddy wrote – that you left because your mother was dying? The army reassigned you to Cleveland, so you could be near her.’
‘Honorable discharge,’ he said with bitterness.
A thought began circling like smoke, half-formed. ‘So it was your idea to leave the unit?’
‘They wanted me gone. I obliged them.’
She looked hard at the street traffic trying to distract herself, but the thought landed anyway: If he hadn’t left, if he had stayed with the unit, he would have known to take off Freddy’s arm, and Freddy would have lived.
‘The surgeon who replaced you,’ she said carefully, ‘he didn’t believe in amputations.’
‘Another fool. The army was full of them.’
Despite the light rain, her face felt hot. Dr. Boutwell lifted his cane at another cab, and the approaching horse raised and lowered his head as if checking their respectability. Vita thought about the captain back in the Soldiers’ Home. The stub of his arm would be bandaged by now. He’d be lying in the regulation cot on the ward, maybe waking up and taking some broth. Why does he get to live, and not Freddy? Why did Freddy have to die? It was not fair to have these thoughts, but it was impossible not to. The question never went away. It could never be answered.
The heart in its action produces two sounds; the first is a sound of propulsion, and the second is a sound of arrestment.
The cabbie shouted down a cheerless greeting at them as his horse came to a halt, twitching its tail.
Vita said, ‘I think I’ll take the streetcar anyway. I can see one coming.’
Dr. Boutwell didn’t try to persuade her. His face was closed and unreadable, like the chloroformed captain on the operating table waiting for something to be cut from him. He climbed into the cab and rested his cane beside him on the seat. He barely nodded good-bye. Vita watched his cab drive off while the streetcar rang its approach in repeating jangles like a mockery. She found an empty seat next to a woman holding a chicken on a leash, and she stared at its little hemp collar trying to stave off the emotions gathering inside her, getting ready to bloom, already uncomfortable. Dr. Boutwell had done more for her than her own father would do. He was her ally. How do you forgive an ally? Raindrops spat in through the glassless windows and the wind seemed to turn as the street turned, so that Vita kept getting wetter and wetter. By the time she got home she felt damp right through, as though the rain had soaked into her veins where it circulated with her blood.
The rain, it raineth every day, Vita thought. What was that from, some poem? Shakespeare? Her mother would know. She wished she could conjure up Mitty beside her, feel Mitty’s hands brushing her hair. Up in her room she got into bed and – since she should be studying –propped Researches on Fever against the pillow beside her as a kind of compromise.
It wasn’t Dr. Boutwell’s fault. Rationally, she knew this was true. If he had known what would happen to Freddy, he would have stayed. She felt sure this was true also, although it didn’t make her feel better. She burrowed beneath her blankets and rubbed her feet together to warm them. She didn’t want to leave her bed for a long, long time – maybe ever.
She must have fallen asleep. When she opened her eyes the dinner bell was ringing, but she didn’t know if it was the first or the second.
To her surprise she felt marginally better. She took the time to look for dry stockings, only to realize after some silent minutes that she must have heard the second bell, not the first.
As she ran down the stairs she could hear the reverend’s voice droning importantly from the dining room.
‘The political dissidents with their violent natures were bent on aggression,’ he was saying from his place at the foot of the table. ‘Naturally they had to be stopped by whatever means possible. The Russians understand how to put down a crowd.’
Unbelievable; he was lecturing Mr. Nowicki on the Russian and Polish conflict, the one which had driven Mr. Nowicki from his home in Warsaw. Mr. Nowicki had suffered from the clash firsthand – Vita had seen the long scar down his arm – but that didn’t stop the reverend from being the authority on the matter.
Vita, murmuring an apology, pulled out a chair across from Mr. Nowicki. She could see he was trying not to reply.
‘What the rebels failed to understand,’ Reverend Simpers went on, ‘was that the Russian government was there to protect the Poles. But peasants are ignorant. Excuse me, students.’
But this was too much. ‘Protect?’ Mr. Nowicki said. ‘They killed the students and strung up their bodies on Alexander Street and left them to rot in the summer heat.’
‘Quite rightly. Punishment must act as a deterrent.’ The reverend often mistook ugliness for righteousness.
Vita helped herself to the fried walleye. She wished she could come to Mr. Nowicki’s aid but she knew nothing about the student demonstrations. He was looking down at his plate now, chewing furiously. Meals were fast affairs in Mrs. McDove’s house. But Reverend Simpers kept pushing.
‘Summer. I imagine the odor was fierce. Like sinners in hell.’
Mr. Nowicki glanced at the little clock on the sideboard.
‘You seem in a hurry tonight, Mr. Nowicki,’ the reverend said, catching the glance.
Mr. Nowicki swallowed and admitted that yes, he had an appointment later.
‘An appointment? An evening appointment?’
‘Yes, that is so.’ He was wearing his Sunday vest, Vita noticed, and his collar looked stiff and new.
Reverend Simpers put down his fork and cast a shrewd eye over him. ‘What’s this, a romantic assignation?’
Mr. Nowicki’s face flushed red, giving himself away. To her surprise, Vita saw a blush creep up on the younger Miss Pickens’s neck as well. Fortunately, Reverend Simpers was so intent on Mr. Nowicki’s discomfort that he didn’t notice Miss Pickens.
‘And you’re all spruced up! Oh ho! A romantic appointment, well!’
He began to talk with his usual authority about love, a subject delightful to him since it managed to make everyone at the table uncomfortable at once. He didn’t even pause when Gracelin banged open the door as she brought in the toasted cheese, marking the end of the meal.
‘A man is at his most magnetic between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five,’ the reverend was saying. ‘For a woman, sixteen to twenty.’
‘Only four years!’ Vita protested. ‘That hardly seems fair.’
‘In some cases,’ he said, pointing his guns at her, ‘even less.’
She leaned forward to reach the toasted cheese, which the reverend liked to start passing around himself while saying a prayer. But tonight he was still warming to his topic, so Vita took the first one and passed the plate herself, forgoing the prayer.
‘I was reading the other day about a new powder developed in France,’ the reverend was saying. ‘It’s been used with great success for keeping at bay those illnesses stemming from love. You might want to take a dose of it, Mr. Nowicki, before venturing out.’ He smiled his weaselly smile.
‘Oh, reverend,’ the elder Miss Pickens said, ‘what kind of illness could come from love?’
Syphilis, Vita thought. Gonorrhea.
‘High emotions affect the body. This powder prevents that.’
‘What’s the name of the powder?’ Vita asked him.
‘Badrolle . . . badoche . . . It will come to me. Something French, of course.’ He patted his vest pocket, as though that particular memory might be stored in its cheap fabric.
‘Baudruche?’ Vita suggested.
‘Yes, that’s it. Baudruche.’
‘It’s not a powder,’ she told him.
‘Certainly it is. I read about it only the other day. The common name is French letter; I imagine it comes in an envelope.’
Mrs. McDove made a little noise and put down her triangle of toasted cheese. Vita remembered the French letters Jacob had used on their wedding night, each one like a sausage casing with a smell like the inside of a rarely used cupboard. There was a pale yellow ribbon at the end for easy removal.
She hesitated. Soot always ate an early supper in the kitchen with Gracelin, but she didn’t want to further disturb Mrs. McDove, who clearly knew, as Vita did, just exactly what the reverend was describing. But the opportunity was too tempting.
‘A French letter, yes. But it isn’t a powder.’
‘It is, I tell you. I read about it myself.’
‘In an advertisement, or a news article?’
‘An advertisement, but it was very detailed.’
‘A French letter, or baudruche, prevents pregnancy,’ she told him, ‘and also diseases like syphilis. It does this by covering the man’s – manliness.’ She couldn’t come up with anything else with the two Misses Pickens staring at her intently, looking not so much shocked – yet – as confused. ‘It covers a man’s manliness during marital relations. He pulls the French letter over himself like a glove.’
The reverend drew back his head. ‘What’s that? No.’ His face was turning a brilliant crimson, right to the tips of his ears. ‘It can’t.’
‘We give them out at the Soldiers’ Home. Syphilis is a terrible problem in the army.’
For a moment no one spoke. Vita could hear Gracelin pumping water in the kitchen and a bang from upstairs, which could only be Soot. The reverend was having difficulty recovering himself. He patted his dry, blood-red lips two or three times with his napkin. For once he had no bullying words to say back.
A bubble of emotion rose in her throat. There was no denying her delight at besting him. She watched his face change colors, while at the same time she tried to keep her own face still. Don’t laugh.
‘Is this discussion quite . . .?’ the elder Miss Pickens finally squeaked out, although what it quite was or wasn’t she left dangling.
Mrs. McDove rose from her chair, releasing everyone at the table from their frozen spell. ‘Why don’t I ask Gracelin to bring out coffee to the parlor, just this once, for anyone who wants it. I can get up a fire in no time. The latest Harper’s came this afternoon, and we might take turns reading it aloud.’
Buoyed by her victory, Vita ran up the stairs to her room two at a time. On her desk she found the card she’d written out with the name and address of the dean at the Cleveland Medical College. Quickly, before she could let herself think, she cleared a place on her desk and fished out a sheet of writing paper.
Dear Professor Cassels,
This letter will, I hope, serve as my application for a place in the summer term of the Cleveland Medical College. For the past nine months I have been studying with Dr. David Boutwell here in Cleveland, and he has supervised a course of reading for me that includes anatomy, physiology, and infectious diseases. I feel prepared to begin instruction at your institution with the goal of getting my certification as a physician. I am available for an interview prior to the term at any time convenient to you, to determine my eligibility.
Thank you for considering my request.
There she hesitated. After waffling for a few moments, she wrote:
Yours Very Truly,
He would find out she was a woman eventually. But she would burn that bridge when she came to it, as Mrs. O. liked to say.
’No married woman can . . . ride about the country attempting to address imaginary wrongs without leaving her own household in a neglected condition that must be an eloquent witness against her. As for spinsters, we have often said that every woman has a natural and inalienable right to a good husband and a pretty baby.’
(Sunday New York Times, editorial, 1868)
She did not expect an answer the day after she mailed her letter, nor the next day (although of course she looked – there was only a butchery bill addressed to Mr. Stewart McDove, and a card advertising Hasheesh Candy). Leaving the house Monday morning, Vita decided not to say anything to Dr. Boutwell. Partly, she didn’t want to jinx it. She was also unsure how she would feel seeing him again. But when she opened the office door he was leaning out the window trying to adjust the shutter, and he seemed so ordinary, so human, with his shirtsleeves rolled up and his mouth set in a line of concentration, that Vita couldn’t feel angry with him. Freddy might have died anyway. She knew this professionally, and she knew this in her heart. Even with all the care and medical acumen in the world, he still might have died.
Dr. Boutwell straightened up and closed the window. ‘That’ll do for now.’ His expression held no trace of the tight anxiety she’d seen on Friday, only his usual thoughtfulness. He didn’t say anything about the Soldiers’ Home, and neither did she.
They got to work sterilizing instruments (Vita) and checking the stores of medicines in the closet (Dr. Boutwell). And when patients began filing in, they were too busy to talk about anything else.
But at lunch, Dr. Boutwell invited her to his home that night for dinner. ‘My wife has been at me to ask you. I should have done so before now.’
She understood this was by way of an apology. Before she could answer, he went on, ‘I’ll not be going back to the Soldiers’ Home for personal reasons.’ He unwrapped the wax paper from the sandwich he’d brought from home. ‘But it is still good training for you. Mrs. Hauser is used to you now, it doesn’t matter if I’m there.’ Mrs. Hauser was the head nurse.
Vita felt like a baby owl, the last to fledge. ‘I can go in by myself?’
He handed her half his sandwich and she poured him half the milk she’d brought with her in a glass jar. Their regular lunch. ‘Of course.’ He smoothed the used wax paper flat and then refolded it, saving it for another use. He took a sip of milk, which he drank from his teacup. ‘Mm. You’ve heard of Asclepiades? The Greek doctor who founded the first medical school in Rome? All the early doctors in Rome, they were all Greek. Asclepiades thought that proper digestion would heal every illness.’
She had heard of Asclepiades, in fact. He believed that the Hippocratic Oath was a meditation on death. But she didn’t mention that to Dr. Boutwell. Of course, he probably knew this already.
First, do no harm. This was a harder mandate, she understood now, than it seemed.
After they closed up for the day, Vita washed her hands and face and tried to tame her hair with a wet comb and too-few hairpins. Outside the clouds were long and dark overhead, and a lamplighter was already lighting the gas streetlamps. There was a moving clatter as shopkeepers rolled up awnings and pushed their wheeled carts back inside the stores. Vita could smell the greasy refinery smoke lingering in the air, and also newly cut lumber. Now that it was spring half the buildings on the street were being extended or modified. She noticed the Italian organ grinder had come back to the little park in Public Square: a sure sign winter was over.
They passed the corner where they usually parted, and Dr. Boutwell, as was his custom when they walked together, began to quiz her:
‘What is Quetelet’s index?’
‘A man’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of his height in meters.’
‘Also known as?’
‘Body mass index.’
The sky deepened into turquoise with a line of copper at the horizon – or was that the lake? They were walking north, toward the water. Behind them was Euclid Avenue, Millionaires’ Row, where wine glass elm trees lined both sides of the street and Italianate mansions were set back behind tall, wrought-iron fences. The mansions were built on a hill with views of the lake; they had broad green lawns, a militia of gardeners, and, in at least one of them, running hot water from a pump in the basement – or so rumor had it. In winter, the street was famous for its sleigh races. Vita had gone with Mr. Nowicki and the two Misses Pickens to see one on Christmas Eve, and the number of fur hats and fur coats and fur blankets on display could have depopulated a forest in Russia.
Dr. Boutwell – far from being a millionaire – lived in a small, pale brick house on Grove Street with a white door and white trim. The street was full of nearly identical houses, although some were built with deep maroon bricks instead of yellow.
‘Until last year there used to be a log cabin on the corner,’ he told Vita as he unlocked his front door. ‘I was almost sad when they tore it down.’
‘Looks like you just missed the weather,’ Mrs. Boutwell said, greeting them inside.
She was a tiny woman with dark hair in a low bun, flat cheekbones, and warm brown eyes. Her two boys stood shyly behind her.
‘Marcus and Nathan, say hello.’
Vita shook their hands and then brought out the two sugared almonds she’d taken from the office. Dr. Boutwell gave her a wry smile when he saw that. ‘You’ve been in my medicine cupboard,’ he said.
The two boys ran off, snorting laughs, with their hands over their mouths as if afraid their father might reach in to pluck the treats out.
When Vita stepped into the front room behind Mrs. Boutwell ‘for a glass before we sit down,’ she saw a small dog uncurl itself from the sofa.
‘Pie, you know you’re not allowed to sleep there!’ Mrs. Boutwell scolded.
Vita felt momentarily confused. Pie? She knew that name.
‘Our company dog,’ Dr. Boutwell said.
Now she remembered. Freddy’s dog. He’d written about Pie.
‘Our mascot. He was really your brother’s. But when I left, Fred smuggled him out to me. ‘To bring you luck,’ he said, ‘and to keep Pie safe.’ I carried him on the train in an old shawl I found somewhere, like a woman carrying an infant. All the way back here to Cleveland.’
He paused; Vita thought he was going to say more, but he didn’t. She’d seen pictures of Pie in Freddy’s photograph album. She smiled at the little dog as he sat facing her on the rug, brushing it with his wagging tail. He was smaller and cleaner than he looked in the photographs.
‘He’s a good dog,’ Mrs. Boutwell said, pouring three glasses of sherry from a sepia-colored carafe. ‘Only he likes that sofa too much.’
Dinner was simple but delicious: lamb with mint sauce and small potatoes and something Dr. Boutwell called ‘greens’ though Vita had never heard of that.
‘My mother was from Raleigh originally,’ Mrs. Boutwell said. ‘It’s a southern dish.’ It looked like cooked lettuce but tasted almost sweet.
‘That’s the onions,’ Mrs. Boutwell told her. ‘I cook them until they get sugary.’
The two boys ate with them, stiffly at first as they tried to remember their manners, and later communicating to each other from across the table in a series of eyebrow lifts and head nods (right, left, up and down) in their own muted language.
‘Twins,’ Dr. Boutwell explained, after they were excused from the table. ‘Always some secret plan or game afoot.’
Mrs. Boutwell nodded. ‘When they were very little I used to understand their codes, but now they’ve gotten too complicated.’
‘They have their own language?’
‘Unspoken, but yes.’
Vita felt a pang, thinking of Amelia. She would have so liked a twin, or at least someone who shared her same interests. Instead she was the odd duck in the family. She was surprised at the longing she felt, witnessing this family life. She’d always thought that if she could only be allowed to study medicine she would want nothing else.
After dinner she helped Mrs. Boutwell carry the dishes into the kitchen. ‘I have a girl who helps me, but her mother is ill so I sent her home.’
‘I don’t mind,’ Vita said.
‘She’ll come back to do the washing up just as soon as her mother is settled for the night. Anna Rose. She has a sister, but Cassie works for the Eells family up there on Euclid Avenue and sometimes has to stay quite late.’ Mrs. Boutwell stacked the plates in the sink. ‘The Eells have a balcony in their parlor, Cassie says. Inside the house! Can you imagine? Fortunately, they live down the street from us. I mean Anna Rose and Cassie, not the Eells.’
Dr. Boutwell poked his head in to say that he’d be in the parlor. A new Boston Medical Journal had come to the house that day.
‘He still reads like he’s a student,’ Mrs. Boutwell said. ‘There’s always a new discovery, a new procedure. It’s nice that he has someone to talk to about it all.’
‘I feel the same way.’
Vita watched as Mrs. Boutwell put scraps on a plate for Pie.
‘The army was not a good place for him. The officers never accepted him, they all came from money. David had to borrow a horse whenever they moved camp, or else walk with the infantry. Your brother used to carry the box of medical supplies for him. One box! They had so little, especially toward the end.’
She put the plate down on the floor for Pie. ‘In his letters, he used to ask me to send handkerchiefs and needles. Handkerchiefs, he liked to say, were like angel visits: few and far between. He gave them out whenever I sent him a box, I’m not sure he kept any for himself. And he helped the boys mend their shirts and coats. When the war first started there was a saying among them, ‘A hole is more honorable than a patch.’ But after a few winters, didn’t they begin to patch their clothes anyway. They used lint from the Sanitary Commission if they didn’t have any other scraps – David gave them whatever he could spare. When the officers turned on him . . .’ She looked down at Pie, who had finished his meal. She picked up the plate.
‘He told me about the officer who was so angry when his arm was amputated,’ Vita said. ‘The reason he – he left the army.’
Why he ran off, she’d been about to say. Hadn’t she had run off, too? She pushed away the image of Jacob asleep in their hotel bed.
Mrs. Boutwell rinsed the sherry glasses and Vita set them upside down on a cloth. ‘He felt betrayed, you see, from the boys in the unit. They began to question his abilities. His motives. That hurt the most.’
Someone you take care of, turning on you. That’s betrayal. Or someone who is supposed to take care of you – Vita was thinking of her father. Does Jacob think of me that way, she suddenly wondered? But of course, he must.
‘Not your brother, though,’ Mrs. Boutwell said. ‘He stuck by him.’
‘The others, they didn’t understand,’ Vita told her. ‘They didn’t know how the body works. I’m sure he saved the life of that officer.’
Mrs. Boutwell sighed. She had gentle eyes that seemed to smile even when her mouth was sad. ‘Thank you.’
Vita held her hand out to Pie and he came over for a sniff. Then he licked her fingers gently, with his tongue tip.
‘David still talks about Fred,’ Mrs. Boutwell said. ‘He was a good friend. It must have been hard for you; first your husband, then your brother.’
It took Vita a moment to remember the story that she was a widow. She was becoming adept at telling lies and half truths in order to get what she wanted. This was how criminals lived, she supposed.
In the taxicab going home, which Dr. Boutwell insisted on hailing and paying for, she stared out the window. The low brick houses looked like they had been built on the same day with the same plan, traced and repeated. When the cab turned onto Euclid Avenue, however, the houses changed and enlarged: mansions with long front lawns, and lights twinkling in the upper windows like distant stars.
Leaning back on the worn carriage seat, Vita felt tears in her eyes. She had a pile of the latest medical journals on her lap, which Dr. Boutwell was loaning to her, and she liked Mrs. Boutwell, who seemed every bit as kind as her husband. But seeing this family life – this happy family life – that was too hard. You might want two things, she told herself, but you can only have one of them.
She resolved to make some excuse in the future if Dr. Boutwell invited her to his home again.
On Friday, after breakfast, Vita found a letter addressed to V. Culhane on the hall table: a stiff, cream-colored envelope with the address of the Cleveland Medical College embossed in the corner.
All the moisture left her mouth. She turned it over, strangely conscious of her fingers. Almost, she did not want to open it. She hooked her finger under the corner edge, as though the envelope slit was a gill on a fish and she was checking it for freshness.
Dear Mr. Culhane,
Thank you for your inquiry. I would be most happy to meet with you on Tuesday, May 10th, at three o’clock, if you are available on that date.
Very truly yours,
Professor John L. Cassels
Cleveland Medical College
Her heart felt like it was opening multiple sets of wings, one unfolding after another. He would see her! She wanted to hug the letter to her breast like a newborn. She left for the Soldiers’ Home with it in her pocket, taking it out on the streetcar to read its few lines again and again. Clouds tumbled overhead, thin and pretty like shining halos with the sun burning behind them. Soon, maybe in a month, she could write Mitty. And Jacob. She would write Jacob a long letter, explaining everything. Or would that be a mistake? There were regular accounts in the newspapers of wives who’d run away and were dragged back home by their angry husbands; the judges were not a bit lenient, at least not to the wives. Wives were the property of the men they had married, like a house or a horse. But Jacob wasn’t like that. Was he? As always, she was back to the same question.
But she didn’t want to spoil her mood by worrying about that now. Not today. At the Soldiers’ Home, Vita spotted Lucy standing at the end of a row of beds holding a folded piece of flannel. On a square, rickety bamboo table beside her were two metal basins half filled with water, and a tin can of plaster of Paris.
‘Can I help?’ Vita was bursting to tell someone the news, although she worried Lucy might think she’d been hiding her plans. Which, of course, she had been.
‘Fractured ulna,’ Lucy said, indicating the soldier sitting up in the bed at a slight lean, like something shifted by the wind. ‘The doctor’s just set it. I’m preparing bandages for the splint.’
‘How d’you do, I’m Mrs. Culhane.’ Vita smiled at the soldier. ‘You must tell me if you need anything.’
‘Anthony Sergeant,’ the soldier introduced himself, ‘though I’m only a corporal.’ He must have told this joke a hundred times, but clearly he still enjoyed it. He was thin with a rubbery look, as if his bones – even the broken one – were divining rods bending toward water. His bucked-out ears were made more noticeable by his closely shaved head.
‘How did you break your arm, Mr. Sergeant?’ Vita asked. He was holding it across his belly, and she could see it was swollen like a log of rising dough, with purple and yellow bruises along his wrist. She asked a passing nurse for razor and shaving soap. Meanwhile, Lucy continued cutting flannel into strips.
‘It was on account of the train ride back from Mississippi. My unit was stationed there for a few months to ensure the peace, you see, and when we were finally discharged I thought it would be nothing to get home. Only the train stopped about every ten minutes to switch cars or switch lines because of the sabotage. Toward the end, I had to ride in a hay cart to an inland town where the railway line was undamaged.’
A line creased his forehead. He took a slow breath and exhaled – almost, but not quite, a whistle. ‘I saw what seemed like a thousand acres of burned fields with skinny children picking them over looking for something to eat. They say the whole of the South is like that now. Makes you wonder, it really does.’
Vita began shaving his injured arm carefully so the plaster wouldn’t stick to his arm hairs. ‘Those poor children.’ She knew what it was like now to go hungry, but for her it was only a day here and there. Nothing like ongoing starvation. And they were children! Their growth, she knew from her studies, would be adversely affected. They’d suffer from crooked, lightweight bones; heart problems; and for girls, difficulty conceiving when they were adults.
‘Here in the city,’ he said, ‘everything feels like it’s beginning – all the buildings going up, and the factories working, pushing out smoke. There it feels like it’s all at an end. When we finally got to the train station I got to talking to a man who was waiting for a delivery of planked wood, and he said he’d feed me for the week if I would stay and help him rebuild his silo, which I did. Not many men around, you see. But on the last morning I tripped and fell on my arm. I don’t even know what I tripped on! Heard it snap like a twig in the woods.’
‘You traveled all the way here?’ Lucy asked. ‘With your arm broken?’
‘It was only a day’s journey, and I didn’t like the looks of the town doctor. Well, his smell, really – rum and peppermint, and more rum than peppermint if you know what I mean. I figured the army had taken care of me so far. But I can tell you, I felt every bump and jolt along the way.’
A boy with mismatched shoes came walking down the narrow aisle between beds, selling peanuts for five cents a bag. ‘Come back when I’m fitted up,’ Anthony Sergeant told him, ‘and I’ll buy a bag for myself and each of these ladies.’
Lucy poured a measure of plaster into the basin of water, and stirred it to the consistency of thick cream. She added a couple of pinches of salt so the mixture wouldn’t set too quickly. When she looked around for the doctor, Mrs. Hauser, the head nurse, noticed and came over carrying a second bamboo table.
‘Dr. Hotchkiss asked me to begin applying the splint, he’s tied up for the moment. But I see you two have it all in hand.’ She set the little table down, covered it with a clean white cloth, and gave the plaster mixture a stir. Niblets of grit rose up to the surface. ‘Good. Bandages all ready? All right then, let me know if you need help. I see I have to roust out that boy with the peanuts again.’
Vita felt a surge of excitement. She had never applied plaster of Paris herself. ‘Why don’t I dunk,’ she told Lucy, ‘and you flatten.’
‘But I’ve never done this before, have you? Maybe we should get another nurse to do it.’
‘It’s not hard. We’ve seen it plenty of times. It’s just like wrapping a Christmas package. Come on. You can dunk if you want, and I’ll flatten.’
Lucy, after another moment’s hesitation, began to immerse the flannel strips in the plaster mixture. After they were soaked through, she spread them on the bamboo table, where Vita smoothed them flat with the palm of her hand. Then together they gently applied the porridgey strips to Anthony Sergeant’s arm, fitting one roller bandage snugly over another.
‘Not bad!’ Lucy said after a few go-arounds.
‘How are you doing, Mr. Sergeant?’ Vita asked.
‘How does your arm feel?’
‘Very snug, thank you.’
While Vita tied the bandage ends, Lucy cut a few smaller strips for his wrist.
‘Now,’ Vita said, ‘try to keep your arm still until the plaster has solidified. Won’t take more than fifteen minutes or so. Meanwhile I’ll see if I can’t get a bag of peanuts for you before Nurse Hauser catches up to the boy.’
Her hands felt gritty and damp, and she rubbed them with a dry towel as she walked along the ward. Did she even have any money? She thrust her hand into her pocket where she found, happily, two nickels kissing in the corner. It was a day where nothing would go wrong.
She and Lucy had just finished stacking the basins to be washed when Dr. Hotchkiss came to check the drying plaster. Anthony Sergeant, still sitting up in the bed, had fallen asleep.
‘Very well done,’ Dr. Hotchkiss said, fingering it with his index finger and thumb. He nodded his approval at Lucy, who said, ‘Mrs. Culhane deserves most of the credit.’
Vita nestled the bag of peanuts in the bent crook of Anthony Sergeant’s good arm; he would see it when he woke up. ‘If he doesn’t crush it by mistake!’ Lucy said, laughing. She was pleased by the doctor’s words. They both were. Vita felt again the butterfly wings in her heart.
‘I want to show you something,’ she said to Lucy. They went to see if they could get tea at the nurses’ corner. A pair of young nurses, waiting for the kettle to boil, stood with thick white mugs in their hands. Both were as small as teenagers; Vita, though not any taller, nevertheless felt decades older.
Lucy looked up from reading the card Vita had handed her with a confused expression. ‘Who is V. Culhane? Your brother?’
‘It’s me. I’m applying to study medicine.’
‘At the medical college here?’ Lucy looked at the card again. ‘But they don’t accept women.’
Not this again. She tried to hide her impatience. ‘Yes, they do. They accepted Emily Blackwell; that’s Elizabeth Blackwell’s sister. She graduated over ten years ago. And other women besides her.’
‘But not after the war began,’ Lucy said. ‘They took a vote, the faculty did, and decided to stop admitting women. I wasn’t interested myself, but I knew a girl who wanted to apply and she was told to go to the Female College in Pennsylvania.’
‘What do you mean, took a vote?’
‘You’ve heard of the American Medical Association?’
‘Of course.’ It was a new organization that wanted to regulate the practice of medicine – separating real physicians from the charlatans out peddling cures. There were too many untrained practitioners, they said, and too many branches of medical science vying for hegemony – homeopathic, botanical, eclectic. She could hear her father’s voice: ‘Something must be done to get rid of them.’
‘Well, they came out against co-education in medicine. They published a report about it. And after that, the CMC faculty voted not to allow female students to attend their lectures anymore.’
‘That can’t be. I know for a fact . . .’ Vita looked out at the beds in the ward, so many of them empty. What do I know? Dr. Emily Blackwell, Dr. Nancy Talbot Clark, Dr. Myra Merrick. All graduates from the Cleveland Medical College before the war. It never occurred to her that something gained could be revoked, a half-eaten slice of cake snatched away.
‘They did let one woman in,’ Lucy said, ‘a couple of years ago, but that was because her husband was already a student there. She left without graduating, to have a baby.’
‘But I’ve been studying all this time with Dr. Boutwell. He would have said if they didn’t admit women.’
‘You told him about your plans?’
‘Oh yes, he knew.’
Lucy handed the card back to Vita. ‘There are other colleges. One in Philadelphia, and one in Boston.’
‘But I need a letter of recommendation, and they won’t know Dr. Boutwell.’
‘Maybe that doesn’t matter.’
A soldier, struggling to open a top window with a long hooked pole, lost purchase and the window slammed shut with a bang. Vita waited for her emotions to gather into a storm cloud, to feel her old companion: fury. But although hot spears of thought struck her brain one after another – it isn’t fair, it can’t be true, they have no right – her usual full-blown anger didn’t rise. Instead she felt unbearably tired. Also strangely vaporous, like a vessel filled only with air.
‘Tea,’ Lucy said, watching her, ‘that’s what we need.’
One of the young nurses opened the cupboard where they kept the mugs. ‘Oh bad luck, only one clean cup left,’ she said, pulling it out.
Nothing for me, Vita thought with bitterness. But Lucy said, ‘That’s all right, we can share it.’
‘This came for me this morning.’
Vita held the letter out to Dr. Boutwell defiantly, an accusation. She found him in his office just starting his lunch. He put down his roll, wiped his fingers on his handkerchief, and took the envelope from her.
‘From the Cleveland Medical College,’ he said. ‘We are requesting an interview . . .’ He looked up. ‘Why, this is wonderful news!’
‘But, you know, don’t you, that they don’t take women students.’
He studied the note again. ‘V. Culhane. Is that how you signed your letter to him?’
‘Why didn’t you tell me? After everything, all you taught me, all I did . . .’ She could almost hear Aunt Norbert saying, Speak in whole sentences, Vita. She took a long breath. ‘You must have known that they don’t allow women to attend their lectures anymore. Why didn’t you tell me so?’
Dr. Boutwell looked surprised. ‘Why, I did tell you!’
Vita shook her head. ‘No, you didn’t.’
‘But I did. Many times. You wouldn’t listen. I said – and I believe these were my exact words – ‘They won’t accept women.’’
‘You – no, what you said was – ’
Now she was confused. Had he told her? Her face grew warm as she considered that, actually, maybe he had. She’d stopped herself from listening to his arguments, one of her old tricks for getting what she wanted. She had trained herself from childhood not to listen to no.
‘Then for heaven’s sake,’ she said angrily, ‘why did you take me on?’
‘You were so determined. I couldn’t break your spirit. Nor did I want to. And there was always midwifery. If well trained, that’s a proper profession.’
‘I never wanted to be a midwife! You know that.’
‘Or you might find work as a doctor’s assistant.’
Vita let out a stream of air from between her teeth. Oh what does it matter, she thought, I’m failing the whole enterprise anyway. So she could apply a plaster cast; what did that signify? She couldn’t save Mary Eileen Doherty’s baby, and half the time she couldn’t diagnose simple ailments. And even if she did, no one believed her because she was a woman.
She would never be a doctor. She couldn’t do it, and they wouldn’t let her: two sides of the same coin.
‘Perhaps you could stay here,’ Dr. Boutwell suggested, ‘and assist me.’
‘There isn’t enough money coming in to support two of us. I’ve seen your books.’
He raised his eyebrows, acknowledging her point. ‘Yes, but that could change. I could advertise, or . . . I don’t know.’ He stood to fill the kettle, keeping his back to her. ‘The fact is, I’ve enjoyed having someone to consult with. Someone in the office with me. I was saying this only last night to Augusta after the boys went to bed. After the war, well, I thought I just wanted to be alone. Work alone. But in fact now I think it’s better to work alongside someone else.’
‘You don’t want to work at the Soldiers’ Home, though.’ It was cruel, but she said it. She saw his shoulders tighten.
‘That’s something else.’
She knew he didn’t like intimate disclosures; he was trying to be honest. Still, how could she help him? ‘It’s no use,’ she said. ‘I’m no good.’
‘That’s where you’re wrong. You’re still learning. And you’re getting better.’
‘Even if I did stay,’ Vita argued, ‘I would never be a doctor. A real one, I mean.’
He hesitated. ‘No,’ he agreed. ‘Not without a medical degree.’
‘Well then, what’s the point?’
‘The point is that you help take care of people. You use your fine mind to diagnose and to cure wherever possible.’
‘I never particularly wanted to help people. I liked the science.’
‘Well, I could see that in the beginning. I did wonder why you kept at it.’
She didn’t want to talk about her father, or even think about him. He would never see her perform some calculated procedure, and praise her. He wouldn’t be proud of her. She’d been delusional about that, too.
‘Anyway, I haven’t changed,’ she said.
‘I can’t be one of those simpering women who want to do good in the world. They just get used up, as far as I can tell, and nobody appreciates them anyway, or even likes them. I don’t want to become that.’
Dr. Boutwell’s mouth twitched a little at one end. ‘No, I don’t see you that way. That’s not what I meant. You’re curious and hard-working, and you listen to your patients. Am I right?’
‘They’re a puzzle. I want to work it out.’
‘Yes, but there’s more. Tell me, who did you see this morning at the Soldiers’ Home? Did you talk to any of the men?’
She thought of Anthony Sergeant as she last saw him, asleep with the bag of peanuts tucked under his arm. ‘A corporal with a fractured ulna. Nurse Frost and I applied the splint.’
‘Was he a textbook passage to you? Or a laboratory specimen?’
She flushed. ‘No.’
‘Well then,’ he said, his point made.
But she wouldn’t concede. ‘Will that convince the college faculty?’ she asked. ‘Will they let me in if I mention Anthony Sergeant by name? If I know more about my patients than only their symptoms? If I care about them?’
She watched him draw breath, and then hesitate.
‘No. I thought not,’ she said.
’To give this position to Miss M. E. Zakrzewska is dangerous. She is a prepossessing young lady, and from coming in contact with so many gentlemen she must necessarily fall in love with one of them, and thus end her career.’
(Letter to Dr. Joseph Schmidt protesting Marie Zakrzewska’s appointment as Director of the Hospital Charité, Berlin, 1851)
Jacob hadn’t expected Cleveland to be so crowded and so noisy with delivery wagons and cabs and private carriages rumbling by in the streets, the streetcars ringing their bells, and hawkers trying to make themselves heard over it all. Brick office buildings and stone banks designed like Greek temples lined Superior Avenue without an inch of air between them, while people rushed along the sidewalk, hardly bothering to look up.
The last time he was here, when he was a boy, a little one-story house stood by itself on the corner of Public Square; it was white with lime-green trim, with a balcony on its roof and four or five slender young maple trees giving it shade. For years he had fantasized about growing rich and living in that house. It wasn’t a mansion, but it was charming and graceful. Attainable, somehow, if he worked hard enough.
But the house was gone, and in its place they’d built an iron-gray office building that thrust upward four stories – high, impersonal, and commercial. Commanding, yes, but not a place you’d dream about.
He’d come with his father that time. They walked along Lake Erie’s southern shore, gazing at the steamboats coming in and out of the port. His father had had a couple of good years and was seeing a Cleveland banker about buying more land. Why a Cleveland bank? Jacob didn’t know. But within a few months there would be another silver crisis and another run on the banks, and Jacob’s father would lose what little he’d saved. He’d been at the peak of his success that summer, and although he thought his fortune would continue, in fact it was already waning.
He let Jacob pick out a penny postcard from a corner kiosk to send home. Jacob still remembered the thrill of looping his ’l’s and ‘p’s as he wrote to his mother in his best hand, and he felt another thrill as they went to the new city post office to mail it, a huge stone edifice half a block long. Inside there was enough empty space to stable every horse in Lark’s Eye. It smells cold in here, Jacob said to his father, who laughed at him for that, and liked to bring up the remark later, in ridicule, after his fortunes had changed.
Only the wind is the same, Jacob thought, pushing his hat down again. Unceasing.
He went into the little park in the middle of Public Square and sat down on one of the iron benches facing the fountain. When he was last here, Superior and Ontario were called streets, not avenues, and both had been cut off to prevent traffic from going through the park. They still were cut off, but the city had since erected a white double-railed fence to underscore the point, which gave the park a captured feeling.
For a while he watched the spray of fountain water change direction and change again as the wind pushed it this way and that. A posted sign claimed the water was pumped in from Lake Erie; the dark droplets were like shakes from a pepper grinder. When he left the hotel this morning, he meant to go straight to the address that Amelia had sent him, but instead he circled the city, walking and walking, trying to come up with a plan.
My dear brother Jacob,
I hope this letter finds you well. I thought you might be interested in the current address of my sister Vita, if you don’t already possess it . . .
It was a short letter. Amelia didn’t say how she came upon the address; whether Vita had written her, or if she’d found it some other way. Nor did she say how Vita was faring. In fact, nothing about her at all. That made him nervous at first, and then fearful. But perhaps Amelia simply didn’t know.
A couple strolled up to the fountain arm in arm and stood watching the spray. After they walked off, Jacob could see a lone woman standing on the other side. When their eyes met, she began to make her way toward him. Was she coming to solicit him? At this time of day? Her fringed shawl and high-buttoned collar gave her the look of a poetess rather than a prostitute, and there was something whimsical in the cut of her dress sleeves. Behind her, the dark pointed spire of the Old Stone Church rose up like a finger blaming God.
She smiled widely, revealing two gray teeth. ‘Care to know your fortune?’ she asked.
The wind lifted the rim of her flat hat at a slight angle, like a ghost taking a peek at him over her shoulder.
‘My name is Miss Mary Light. I know what’s already happened and what will happen yet.’
Jacob stood to offer her a seat on the bench, thinking that as she sat down he would take his leave. But she didn’t sit.
‘Even from far away I could see that you’re lovesick. You’re afraid that your girl isn’t true. Am I right?’
He felt himself flush, surprised to be caught out. But he was a man sitting alone on a park bench in the middle of the day, dressed like a businessman and yet not at work. She didn’t have to be a seer to know something was troubling him, and love was as good a guess as any.
She said, ‘For a penny I can help you realize your love.’
He tried to joke. ‘So much for only one penny?’ He could see tiny repairs in her dress, and a rust-colored stain near the pocket. When she cocked her head uncertainly, he felt bad and fished out his coin purse.
She nodded, back on familiar ground. ‘Now, then,’ she said. She took hold of his two wrists, another surprise, but that was only to lower him down again to sit. Then she sat down next to him, turning to face him. She smiled her wide, child’s smile. Those two gray teeth again.
‘Here’s what you must do. In between the hours of nine and twelve, on a night with a moon, go catch a gray dove and kill it. Mix its blood with wheaten flour to make a cake in the shape of a heart, and after it’s baked prick the cake with the initials of your name. Then eat a slice before going to bed. Do this for two nights in a row. On the third night, write the name of your beloved on a clean piece of white paper and put it under your pillow.’
She spoke with the slight lilt he associated with children of Irish immigrants. She was watching him closely as if trying to determine whether or not he was memorizing her instructions.
‘If on that night you dream of your beloved, then your beloved is true. If you do not dream of her, then she is false.’
She touched one of his wrists again, two gloved fingers pressing the bone. But Jacob was distracted by the word beloved. He thought of Vita’s small hands, her intense glances, her husky voice. An eddy of emotion swirled in his chest.
‘Now. You mustn’t perform this during Passion Week,’ Miss Mary Light told him. Passion Week was ten months away. ‘Or on the eve of St. Jude’s.’ That was in October.
He gave her another penny, thanked her, and touched his hat. A dove’s blood and wheaten flour – what would the chef at the American Hotel say to that? Of course; use my oven! But Jacob found he couldn’t joke himself into amusement. He felt uneasy, as if Miss Mary Light had started to unearth something he didn’t want unearthed. His hands, which had shook all day yesterday as he traveled, were completely still. He watched her circle the little park, as if seeking another customer, and then open the little iron gate and leave.
He left the park, too, but went off in the opposite direction. After a block he stopped and consulted the map that the hotel clerk had drawn for him that morning, and then he continued to the corner and turned right. He passed a line of men digging trenches for water pipes and, on the next block, more men grading the street.
He turned again, this time toward the lake, and for a while he strolled along a quiet street off of St. Clair. Boxy white boarding houses filled the block and a line of elm trees gave shade to the sidewalk. A kerosene wagon rumbled by him, then stopped at a house up ahead to deliver two small barrels. The faint smell of oil was everywhere, traveling on the lake wind. That morning Jacob had spoken to a man in his hotel lobby who was in Cleveland, he’d said, to see the horse races. He told Jacob that the fumes from all the city refineries – almost thirty of them now – turned butter rancid ‘faster than fast,’ especially in the homes near the river.
Vita’s street had nothing to distinguish it from the other streets except for a squat stone church on the corner. He came to the address Amelia had sent him; a house made of the same blond brick as the other houses along the street, with white trim and a stone lintel over the door. A black and gold sign hung from the lintel: ‘The Frederick’.
Jacob put his hand on the gate’s cold iron finial and then hesitated. He could still leave if he wanted. Next door, a young boy had set up a show making animal figures with his hands: a wolf, a hawk, a swan. All that was missing was a white sheet and a candle. Two little girls crouched, not quite sitting, as his audience.
Jacob pushed open the gate, which yielded with a complaining squeak. To his surprise, the boy from next door got to his feet and called out. ‘Hey! Mister! Stop a moment.’
He was a thin boy, eight or nine, dressed in a dark gray cap and short trousers. Jacob watched him squash through the knee-high hedge that separated the two houses. His sharp shoulder blades reminded him of bird wings.
It turned out that the boy lived at this house, The Frederick. ‘And we don’t need any penny photographs or ribbons or book subscriptions neither,’ he said importantly.
‘Do I look like I’m selling something?’
Jacob spread his empty hands as if opening an invisible hymnbook.
‘I’m looking for Mrs. Vita Culhane.’
‘The widder?’ the boy asked.
So she was calling herself a widow.
‘Not exactly. I’m her husband, you see. Mr. Jacob Culhane.’ He began to pull out a card from his vest pocket before he realized the foolishness of presenting his credentials to a child. But the boy had seen Jacob’s movement and held out his hand.
He read the card carefully, and then turned it over to look at the back.
‘Why aren’t you in school?’ Jacob asked.
‘I been out all month with my pneumonia. This is the first day my ma let me outside.’
‘Pneumonia! That’s serious business.’
The boy shrugged off Jacob’s concern. ‘Only one lobe. If it was both lobes it’d be double pneumonia but it was only the one. Mrs. Culhane explained it to me when she gave me my medicine.’ He wedged Jacob’s card into his front pocket, which was already bulging with whatever eight-year-old boys carry these days – in Jacob’s time, acorn tops and string and a thin piece of metal he could bend into a fishhook.
‘She told us that her husband was passed on.’
‘Perhaps she meant missing.’
The boy cocked his head, suspicious. ‘P’raps.’
‘What’s your name, son?’
‘Well, Stewart, I take it Mrs. Culhane lives here with you? Is she at home now?’
‘She’s out doctoring. You like to wait for her?’
The boy led him inside and down the hall to the back parlor; a room crowded with furniture and pictures – ’cozy,’ as Samantha put it – and, along the far wall, four or five decorative mirrors hanging from chains. But this room really did feel cozy, with chairs that were worn and smooth, perhaps even ugly if examined one by one, but taken as a whole comfortable and unobtrusive. Compared to this, Samantha’s efforts seemed obvious, even false. The boy offered him a chair near the unlit fire and then, to Jacob’s surprise, he sat down to wait with him.
He offered Jacob some pages of a newspaper from the round table beside his chair, while he himself selected the page with news of that day’s estate sales, which surely could hold no interest to him.
But he shook the page importantly. ‘I could ask for tea, if you like?’
For the first time that day Jacob felt a true smile creep up, and he tried to bury it. The boy’s toes dangled above the chair’s oval footstool, almost touching its needlepoint cover.
‘I wouldn’t say no to a glass of water,’ Jacob said.
The boy pushed himself out of his chair to fetch one. ‘When I was sick in bed,’ he said, ‘I got to try whiskey.’
‘Whiskey? Really? And how did you like it?’
He shrugged. ‘I found that it’s not to my taste.’
When she came home that afternoon, Vita was surprised to see Mr. Nowicki rise from the straight-backed chair in the hallway as though he’d been waiting for her. The lodgers usually sat in that chair only when pulling off boots or to open a piece of mail they didn’t want to wait, for some reason, to read up in their room.
‘There’s a gentleman in the parlor,’ Mr. Nowicki told her, ‘and he has a card, and printed on it the name Mr. Jacob Culhane.’
She felt the blood leave her face.
‘He has been in there for almost one hour with our Soot. I thought it best you should not be surprised.’
Had Mr. Nowicki been sitting in that uncomfortable chair all this time, waiting for her? Her heart warmed to him.
‘Thank you, Mr. Nowicki.’
She looked into the hall mirror. She had imagined this moment; both dreading it and hoping it would come. And now it has, she thought, but she didn’t know how she felt. Her shirtwaist was neat and her collar was clean. Her once-wild hair was smooth and neatly bound, even after removing her hat, because she’d begun to comb a little lotion into it at night, at Lucy’s suggestion. Patients felt less fearful if their attendants were tidy. Vita pulled out a hairpin and angled it back into place. For some reason she couldn’t seem to swallow.
Mr. Nowicki was watching her. ‘Is Mr. Jacob Culhane your husband?’ he asked.
Part of her was glad that the pretense was over. ‘Yes.’
‘Your husband is not dead?’
‘But you wished to hide from him.’ He was looking at her anxiously.
‘I’m sorry I lied to you, Mr. Nowicki.’
‘You had a good reason,’ he said firmly, not knowing the reason but knowing – or so he believed – her.
‘I thought I did.’
‘Of course you did. And you protected yourself.’
‘But I didn’t tell you the truth.’
He shrugged. ‘Truth!’ he said.
He might have said, ‘Courage!’ or ‘Rubbish!’ or ‘Dog!’ A rubbery word, truth; a word that could evoke anything or nothing. They smiled at each other, she had no idea why. He nodded encouragement.
‘I’ll wait right here. If you need me.’
When she opened the parlor door, the light in the hallway behind her seemed to shrink. Jacob was sitting near the fireplace and stood up when she came into the room.
There he was.
Vita felt prickles on her skin, like small mushrooms popping up in the dark.
‘Mr. Jacob Culhane,’ Soot said, hopping off his mother’s chair.
She waited for something to come to her, what to say.
‘Is he your husband?’ Soot asked. ‘Like he says?’
‘Yes.’ She felt her face flush again and she bent to fiddle with an oil lamp, turning the flame higher. ‘Where’s your mother?’
‘She was out marketing until a minute ago. Now she’s in the kitchen getting us tea.’ He paused. ‘So I guess he didn’t die in the war, only went missing? But you didn’t know?’
Like Mr. Nowicki, he was trying to protect her.
‘I’m sorry, Soot. I knew he was alive. I shouldn’t have lied.’
Soot looked at her as though she were a disappointing puzzle. ‘Then why did you?’
Jacob was also watching her closely. The shape of his head, his squared shoulders – all so familiar, as if she’d seen him only minutes ago, not months. He still hadn’t spoken.
‘Well, as you know, I wanted to be a doctor. And he was going to stop me from doing that.’
Footsteps sounded in the hallway.
‘You thought I wanted to stop you?’ Jacob asked.
Mrs. McDove opened the door and came into the room carrying a tray. ‘Now, then, why don’t we . . .’ Then she saw Vita. ‘Oh, Mrs. Culhane, you’re here, are you, and what a shock you must be having. Sit down, please, I’m going to light the coals for you.’
Vita allowed herself to be directed to the armchair and given tea with lots of milk and sugar. Mrs. McDove had been deceived but here she was, solicitous and kind, putting a pale pink teacup into her hand. Vita felt herself struggling to say something.
Soot got there first. ‘She thought he was dead but he only went missing.’ Lying for her.
‘Of course, and what a happy surprise that he’s here! Now, no more about it. It’s a miracle, is what it is. Soot, you and I must leave them alone so they can talk. Let me just start the fire.’
Vita could not tell if Mrs. McDove believed the story or not. Soot hesitated, looking at Vita for confirmation. In the space of ten minutes he seemed to have grown into the little man he had for months pretended to be.
‘I’ll be in the dining room with Mr. Nowicki if you want anything,’ Mrs. McDove said in her generous, light voice, but Vita saw her stare hard at Jacob’s face for a few seconds, assessing him. ‘Soot, come along.’
Jacob sat down again after they left, but pushed his footstool aside with one foot as if he wanted to be ready to spring up at any moment. They sat half-facing each other, each on one side of the fireplace. The smell of burning coal – which Vita usually found comforting – mixed with the scent of kerosene oil for the lamps and woody furniture polish. She didn’t know what to say. That she was sorry? Was she?
‘You’ve made friends here,’ Jacob said. It sounded like an accusation.
‘I have, I suppose.’
She heard the front door open, and the bird-like voices of the two Misses Pickens rang out in the hallway.
‘Or we could wear our blue merinos.’ A growly goose – the elder Miss Pickens. Then the sparrow: ‘But do you think they will be warm enough? Why, hello Soot.’
Here the voices went lower, and Vita imagined Soot telling them not to go into the parlor and why. She felt like a bird herself; not a goose or a sparrow, but something more furtive – a starling on a stolen nest. Ready to defend it, but also, confusingly, ready to give up and make room for the intruder.
‘Jacob – ’
But he started to speak at the same time. ‘Why didn’t you talk to me; why did you just leave? Your note at the hotel – were you deliberately trying to be cryptic?’
‘No. I don’t know. I was in a hurry.’
‘But why? Why leave?’
‘You know why! You decided that I should work with you on your barrels instead of becoming a doctor.’
‘I – that’s not true. It was only a suggestion.’ He said this aggressively.
‘You never wanted me to go off to college. I heard you say to Holland that you never saw the use of it. Those very words.’
‘But I didn’t mean it, I told you that. Anyway you were the one who wanted to keep our deal a secret.’
‘But was it a deal? A firm deal?’
‘Of course it was.’
‘So you were planning to keep your word? Even if I didn’t help you with the barrel glue?’ She wanted so much for that to be true.
‘Of course! That is . . .’ He pursed his mouth. ‘Well. Maybe I did think it would all come to nothing, once we were married and settled. It seemed rather unlikely that any doctor would agree to mentor a woman. And then, I also had the feeling that you were growing fond of me. And so was I. Of you. And maybe we . . .’ he searched for the right words. ‘Maybe it could be a real marriage, I thought.’
She watched him lace his fingers together. It was true; she had grown fond of him. More than fond.
‘The boy, Stewart, he tells me that you’ll be going to medical college in the fall.’
‘That’s all fallen apart,’ she said, getting up to tend to the fire. She might as well be honest with him. The loose ashes squeaked as she prodded them down through the grate. She took another minute to scrape the larger coals together into a pile, trying to work up a better glow. When she turned back she saw that Jacob had made a loose fist with his left hand and was tapping each knuckle with two fingers from his right hand. Four taps up, four taps back. Then he switched hands.
‘A doctor taught me this. To stop my tremors. Soldiers’ Complaint, he called it. Supposedly it will help with the nightmares, too.’
‘I didn’t know you had nightmares.’
‘Of course you didn’t. They started when you left.’ His voice rose. ‘When you left me, that’s when it all started up again.’
‘I’ve seen quite a lot of soldiers suffering from tremors. It’s not uncommon.’
But that was the wrong thing to say.
‘Have you? Have you now? You look after these soldiers, but you won’t look after me?’
‘I didn’t know you needed looking after.’
‘No, you didn’t, did you? How would you?’
The fire crackled and shot up a red spark. For a moment they stared at each other.
‘I want you to come back to Boston with me,’ Jacob said.
‘Why?’ She was his wife; he didn’t have to say it. He shook out his hands as if drying them in the air and looked at them. The right one still trembled slightly, as gentle as a hummingbird treading air. He began tapping his knuckles again.
‘Do you have any other symptoms?’ she asked. ‘Shortness of breath? Hallucinations?’
‘No. Nothing like that. Just tremors and nightmares.’ He glared at her as if to say, Aren’t those enough?
At the Soldiers’ Home Vita had seen Dr. Hotchkiss swab a man’s shaking hands with strychnine and tie his wrists together; ‘binding the tremors will stop them,’ he said, although it didn’t. She thought about poor young Walter Cutter, hiding his hands under the bed sheet.
‘Does the tapping work?’
‘Not very well.’
‘Stay a moment. I’ll be right back.’
She went to the kitchen and returned carrying a cup of warm milk.
‘With some extract of vanilla and a drop of whiskey. It’s not a cure, exactly, but it might bring you some relief.’
Jacob took a cautious sip and then set the cup down on the table beside him. Close up, Vita could see dark rings under his eyes. In the silence she heard muffled voices coming from somewhere in the house. He was right, she had made friends here. She’d built a life without noticing. A gust of wind came down the chimney, causing Mrs. McDove’s mirrors to rattle on their chains. The coals were dying again, down to their last ashy crumbs. In a minute she would stand up and scoop new coals from the coal box and coax the fire back to life. Or maybe she would just let it die.
‘How would we support ourselves in Boston,’ she asked, ‘if you’re ill?’
‘I still have your father’s money. Most all of it. If you could help me get better, to recover, I can look for a job.’
Then he said, ‘And after that, if you want, we can find you a new preceptor. Someone local.’
Starting over from scratch. Her heart felt like a brick at the thought of it. Another thing soldiers did – Vita knew this now, from talk at the Soldiers’ Home – was run from a battle. No matter how many deserters were hung by the neck, men facing a line of cannons and guns still weighed up their chances: which death was preferable? Strangely, though, she didn’t feel defeated. She felt finished. She’d arrived at the terminus. She could pack up everything she owned in twenty minutes; less than that if she left her books behind.
‘I’m so tired,’ she said, startling herself; she hadn’t meant to say that aloud.
Jacob looked at her sadly. ‘I’m tired, too.’
’The party . . . requested the woman to permit herself to be dressed in the Doctor’s wig, gown, and canonicals; she consented; and in this disguise the resemblance was so striking, that it astonished all who were in on the secret, and would have deceived any who were not.’
(Many Things in Few Words, Charles Caleb Cotton, 1820)
They made their way with one small black trunk, Jacob’s leather carryall, and Vita’s old maroon carpetbag to Cleveland’s Union Station four days later, only to learn once they got there that their train was delayed.
They could see it sitting on the track while a car-knocker inspected the under machinery. A boy with a sooty face jumped up and down from the platform, handing him various tools from two open toolboxes.
It was a little past seven in the morning. They had tickets for the Express to Buffalo, and from there they would change to another line for Boston. After they saw their trunk loaded into the baggage car, they spent a few minutes walking around the new station. It was constructed out of huge slabs of chalk-colored stone, with high ceilings and long windows, like a cathedral. A monument to commerce and travel.
The ladies’ waiting room was painted pearly white and reminded Vita of the inside of a hatbox. There was a separate washroom with private toilets, and a matron was on duty to help ladies with their dress buttons. Jacob went to have a shave and steam towel in the men’s waiting room, but inside of ten minutes the conductor began walking through the station calling out, ‘Express departure!’ in a booming tenor voice.
She let Jacob carry her carpetbag for her. Apart from the medical instruments she’d accumulated – most of them hand-me-downs from Dr. Boutwell – she’d packed nothing much more than what she’d packed at the Lark’s Eye Hotel. Of course, the instruments would be useless to her now, but perhaps she could sell them in Boston. One thing she had learned was how to be thrifty.
When she went to the office to say good-bye, she gave Dr. Boutwell the same story she had given Mrs. McDove and the Misses Pickens: a missing husband who had at last found her, the move to be with him in Boston. To Dr. Boutwell she added: ‘I might as well, since the Cleveland Medical College won’t admit women. I was thinking I might go to Mount Holyoke and study biology.’ That was only a few miles west of Boston.
‘But there’s a medical college for women right there in the city,’ Dr. Boutwell had said. He studied her face carefully. ‘You might look into that.’
‘Perhaps I will,’ she said, though she didn’t think she would.
What she really wanted was to sleep for a week. To wake up and pretend that she’d never wanted to study medicine in the first place. Attending a few biology classes would be a relief after all these arduous months. And to the world she could say: I have a husband and a home to take care of now. That answered all arguments. Of course, no one was asking.
After they watched a baggage man load their trunk into the baggage car, they took their hand luggage with them and looked for seats. The train was crowded. At last they found two empty seats in the middle of the last passenger car, and Jacob put their bags and coats on the rack above them. This was a modern, open train carriage, befitting the new modern train station. It had two rows of thickly upholstered seats going down the length of the coach, with an aisle between them. After they settled in, Jacob and Vita watched the other passengers arrange themselves and their belongings: men dressed like bankers or clerks, a few women traveling with children. There was one pregnant woman a few seats up. She was well dressed, and traveling alone.
‘She seems close to her time,’ Jacob said.
Vita nodded. ‘A month. Maybe less.’
Even before they left the station some of the passengers began to uncover baskets of food, and the smell of fresh bread, sausages, and sauerkraut wafted through the car.
‘Hungry?’ he asked.
She wasn’t, but he bought two oranges and a pint of milk anyway from a boy walking down the aisle with a cardboard box tied like a yoke around his neck. A few minutes later the train started to push itself forward like a clanking, clumsy worm. Slowly it picked up speed as they left the station and began passing commercial buildings, and then warehouses, and then wooden shacks. After the shacks ended, the stubbly unplowed fields began. Jacob peeled the orange and pulled off a section for her, the white threads of pulp like a sticky web woven into the fruit.
‘They advertise gas fixtures, but do they use them?’ he said. Unlit gas sconces were nailed at regular intervals along the train car walls, next to older boxes with thin wax tapers. A young boy with two missing fingers was lighting the tapers, ignoring the sconces. ‘Half of these so-called improvements are only advertising ploys. The stoves in the middle of the coach make you think more of the car must get warm, but it doesn’t. Too close and you broil; too far away and you freeze.’
‘I’m comfortable where we are,’ Vita said.
They had lost their easy banter; they were careful with each other. The scent of food faded and was replaced by a mix of train smoke, sweat, and tobacco juice. Although brass cuspidors had been strategically nailed down in the front and back of all the passenger cars, the floors and walls were still stained yellow with spittle. When Jacob passed Vita the milk with its little cardboard straw popping up from the neck, she smiled a thin smile of thanks.
Trying to be agreeable. They both were.
The train stopped briefly at two small depots in Ohio before passing through a corner of Pennsylvania and then into New York State. At a longer station stop outside Dunkirk, Jacob ordered a second breakfast for them: watery coffee and a dusty heel of bread spread with marmalade. The station café was papered with curling advertisements for carpets and oilcloths, seed warehouses, or billiards tables. Also a handwritten sign: ‘No spitting out the window if the window is closed.’ He wanted to laugh with her about that but she was looking down at her bread, spreading the marmalade.
We have to get used to each other again, he thought.
When they were finished he bought a newspaper and asked if she wanted a magazine. He bought two sticks of striped peppermint candy and gave her one. She bit off the tip right away.
‘You don’t try to make it last?’
‘I always forget,’ she said. ‘Or maybe I’m greedy.’
Her jaw moved right and left as she sucked the candy. ‘This is good,’ she said. And then, ‘Better than the marmalade,’ as though she understood he wanted more from her and was trying to oblige.
It would take time, he knew that. They had both changed, but separately; and me, Jacob thought, probably for the worse. His hands were steady, but he couldn’t trust them to remain so. Vita looked like her thoughts were a million miles away. She was always honest with me, he found himself thinking. She told me from the first what she wanted. I was the one who held myself back.
When the train whistled to announce its departure, Vita followed Jacob back to their seats feeling, as she had all morning, as though she were wading against a slight but persistent current. She settled her cloak over her like a blanket and closed her eyes but couldn’t fall asleep. Back in Cleveland, Dr. Boutwell would be seeing patients in his office. He’d be swabbing a bleeding wart with nitric acid or giving someone with heartburn a drink of water with salts of tartar. She had an unopened letter from him in her purse; she’d spotted the letter on Mrs. McDove’s hall table this morning just as she was leaving. It must have come last night.
She didn’t want to read it. Either he would express regret at her decision, which would pain her, or he would not, which would also pain her. The train rocked along with its clanking song of iron against iron as she opened her purse and pulled the letter out.
Jacob looked over from his paper.
‘From Dr. Boutwell,’ she told him. ‘Just a final good-bye, I expect.’
But when she read it, she realized it was not a good-bye.
To the faculty of the Cleveland Medical College:
It is my great pleasure to recommend my student, Mrs. Vita Culhane, to your institution for the purpose of furthering her education in medicine and obtaining a medical degree. I have acted as preceptor to Mrs. Culhane for the better part of a year, and have found her, without exception, to be one of the quickest and brightest students I have ever had the good fortune to teach. A hard worker with an exceptional memory and commendable study skills, Mrs. Culhane has also excelled in assisting me with all the physical realms of doctoring, including diagnosis and prescriptions for cure, application of bandages, administration of medicines . . .
The glass window was smeared with exhaust, making the day seem darker, and Vita tilted the letter to get more light on it. She felt a weight on her heart as heavy as a sigh. She was touched, but also sad. Did she deserve this? She read it once through, and then read it again.
‘Everything all right?’ Jacob asked.
‘Yes. It’s not – it’s a recommendation for medical college. The Cleveland Medical College. My interview is – was – tomorrow.’
‘You have an interview at the college?’
‘They’re expecting a man. They don’t admit women anymore. But I didn’t know that when I wrote to them.’
There was a sharp jolt. Vita looked out the window. They were coming up to a little country station with a black line of crows perched on the roof.
Jacob asked, ‘Did you want to go to it? The interview?’
‘There wasn’t any point.’
The train jolted again, and their car began to sway back and forth. Vita didn’t ride trains regularly. Was this usual?
‘What’s happened?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know. Skipper,’ Jacob called out as the conductor passed their seats. ‘Everything all right?’
‘Probably picked up a stone in the wheels. It’ll come loose after a few turns.’
‘What’s the name of this town?’
‘Gillis, New York, but we don’t stop here.’
He kept walking through to the next car, clearly not bothered by the train’s movement.
After they passed the empty station, the train began going up a small rise toward a bridge. But the swaying only got worse as they climbed, and a new noise started up behind them: chuck; chuck-chuck. Chuck; chuck-chuck. By this time all the passengers were glancing at each other with anxious expressions. This didn’t feel right. Jacob got up to look out from another window.
‘What is it?’ Vita asked when he came back.
‘I can’t see anything. But I’m wondering if the back of the train has jumped the track.’
‘Wouldn’t the engineer see it, and stop us?’
At that moment they heard the brakeman call out from the short platform at the end of the train, followed by the long cry of metal brakes. But even Vita could tell that at their current speed it would take some time to fully stop. The shaking had become violent now.
Jacob pulled her up. His face was white. ‘We need to get out of this car.’
As they made their way unsteadily up the aisle, several other men stood too, but then they paused, clearly undecided about what to do. Jacob was in front, holding her hand, keeping her close behind him. They got to the next car, which shook a bit less but was also swaying like a pendulum. Boxes and bags began to tumble out of the overhead racks.
Jacob had to raise his voice. ‘Don’t let go of me!’
He kept walking as though he wanted to reach the very first car. The train, still trying to brake to a stop, was on the bridge now. Through the windows Vita could see a gully some twenty feet below. She and Jacob were almost at the front seats when she heard, or maybe felt, a popping noise, like a Christmas cracker being pulled apart. There was a loud screech of tearing metal, and she had to let go of Jacob to grab the nearest seat with both hands as the car pitched forward.
Jacob also fell, grabbing at the same seat with his arms around her, holding her in place. His mouth brushed her ear and she heard him inhale sharply.
‘The pin broke. The last car – ’ he jerked his head back toward the car they’d just left – ’it’s falling.’
Jacob could hear the cracking wood of the train car behind them as it started its free-fall over the rails, punctured by shrieks from the passengers – or was that the scream of twisting metal? Two small children and a young woman, who had been making their way up the aisle behind them, lost their balance and fell, sliding down the floorboards toward the potbellied stove. It was all Jacob could do to keep on his own feet. He fumbled, trying to get a better hold on the seat that Vita was also holding. Her back was to him; he could not see her face. Seconds later there was a deafening sound of wood snapping and splintering as the falling car hit the bridgework outside.
The force of it pitching off the rails pushed their own car forward, and Jacob, even while trying his best to stay upright, did what every other man and woman in the train car was doing – he locked eyes with another person; for him, the young woman on the floor who had grabbed a seat leg with one hand and with the other was grasping one of her children by his shirtsleeve. She stared at Jacob as she lay there on her side with the same naked stare he could feel on his own face, stripped of personality, knowing their turn was coming.
The sway of their car, which had never stopped, suddenly increased its arc dramatically. A couple of men managed to cross the aisle trying to balance out the swing with their weight. The train was still moving forward on the tracks even as it rocked back and forth over the gully. Jacob felt a depth to his fear which was also a kind of space, as though a tunnel had opened up within him. He knew there was little chance the swaying would right itself, despite the efforts of the men crossing the aisle and back again. All he could hope for was that their train car got past the ravine before it fell off the tracks.
It hung on for two more sways. On the third sway the car paused for a long moment in the air, and then, instead of arcing back, it continued its sideways fall, a graceless tumble that had within it, for Jacob, the briefest moment of relief. Anticipation was over. What he had feared had begun. There was a sharp crack as the car’s iron pin broke, severing them from the train in front of them just as the car behind them had been severed.
Vita lost her grip and fell hard against him. They were both hurtled across the aisle as the car smashed onto its side, shooting out shards of window glass and wood splinters like a spray of bullets from a hundred guns. The car skittered over the scrubby ground next to the rails; they had made it over the bridge, but barely. A matter of inches. They began spinning on the ground like a toy top; for what seemed like hours Jacob could see nothing except a whirling panoply of arms and shoes and handbags and seat cushions. A few lit tapers fell to the floor. The smell of burning metal. As the car continued twirling, a loose piece of wood hurtled toward Jacob, striking him on his head, and he closed his eyes.
Vita’s dress was twisted up beneath her, and although probably only a few seconds had elapsed since the train car stopped moving, it felt like much longer. She couldn’t make out where she was among the clutter of seat cushions, straw baskets, a splintered walking stick, sheets of loose paper with musical notations, and tangles of dresses and coats and trousers, some of which were people. Why were the armrests so close to the ground? Her brain was working very slowly. The car, she realized, had landed on its side. There was a shattered window beneath her.
When she looked down at her dress she saw shiny sparkles; she was covered in shards of glass. That must be why her sleeves were torn. Her cheek stung, too, and there was something wrong with her shoulder. She noted these details distantly, as though she were examining someone else. A patient.
Carefully, she picked rhomboids of glass from her dress and shook the fabric free of smaller shards. Then she crawled over to where she could see Jacob – at first, only his arm. His eyes were closed and his scalp was bleeding furiously. She grabbed a striped blue cravat from the rubble and used it to tie up his head. He was breathing, thank God. As she knotted the bandage he blinked and opened his eyes. Outwardly she couldn’t see any other injuries although, like herself, his clothes were all sliced up. His mouth worked once or twice as if words might be found among his upper teeth.
She leaned closer. ‘What?’
He swallowed and tried again. ‘Smoke.’
The potbellied stoves had overturned in the crash, and hot coals were strewn over the plush upholstery and mounds of loose clothing. A couple of women had picked up seat cushions and were hitting back a small fire at one end of the car, but there were several other flames flickering among the seats. A gust of wind came through a gaping hole, and one of the flames flickered higher.
‘We have to get out of the car!’ Vita shouted, while at the same time she crawled over to a nearby pile of glowing coals and began pounding them with a cushion.
Already a couple of men were dragging out the injured passengers. Jacob helped unpin a woman’s leg from under a bent iron seat and started pulling her out. Vita could hear children crying. One was saying in a high, anxious voice, ‘Mother, get up! Mother, get up now!’
There were two openings, front and back, with all the passengers crammed between. Thirty? Forty? At least ten were already dead from the crash. Vita crawled past a man sitting upright with blood spilling from a slice across his neck – a severed carotid artery – and another with a half-dented skull, his eyes blank with death. She found the boy she’d heard calling to his mother. He was holding onto a woman, whose face was so bruised that it was changing color before Vita’s eyes.
‘Let’s get you out of this car,’ Vita said to the boy, but he wouldn’t let go of his mother’s arm, shaking it and letting it fall and shaking it again.
An older man crawled over, his graying beard full of glass. ‘I’ll help your mother, son,’ he said, and together he and Vita pulled both mother and son out. The mother was dead, but it was the only way to save the boy.
He was still crying, ‘Mother, get up,’ as he sat beside her on the ground when another woman, calling him Denny, crawled over and took him by the hand. He wrapped his arms around her neck and began to shake with scared sobs.
Vita went back to the train car. The wind was sweeping through it, keeping the fires alive and growing. She could see flames licking the varnished walls and devouring piles of clothes. She helped another woman out who was hugging an infant to her chest. The infant’s head was thrown back and his mouth was open, with ashes like grimy cracker crumbs at the edges, but he blinked, so he was alive, too.
She found a long pleated cape and spread it on the ground. ‘You’ll be safe here,’ she told the woman as she helped her sit down with her baby. But when Vita turned back she saw there was no going near the train car again. The smoke was too thick.
She felt her throat constrict. Where was Jacob? Flames were shooting out everywhere.
‘Back! Back!’ shouted the man who’d helped Vita with the young boy, Denny. His vest was covered in ashes and blood. ‘It’s a fire pit!’
The flames swooped up, bending and changing directions, a wily animal consuming every breath of air. The metal carriage seemed to glow, and the air was thick with the smell of smoke, wood varnish, singed cotton, and burnt flesh.
But there he was. He was standing a few yards from the back of the car, looking over the crowd. She tried to stand but all she could do was raise her arm. It was enough; he saw her. As he picked his way over he bent to retrieve a fringed black shawl that had blown from the train, and when he got to her he wrapped it around her shoulders.
‘For a moment I thought you’d gone back in,’ he said, kneeling beside her.
The smell of smoke on his clothes was so strong she thought there must be a live ember burning the cloth. She moved her hands over his arms and the front of his shirt, checking.
‘I didn’t go back in,’ she told him.
He brought her hand up to his mouth. The gesture felt more like acknowledgment than a kiss: We made it.
Others were not so lucky. Vita could see the train car in the gully below them. It too had landed on its side; flames rose from a few of its windows. But there were survivors; they could hear shouts for help.
‘We need to get to them. We can climb down over there,’ Vita said. She pointed to a rough, half-overgrown path leading down to the gully.
Jacob looked at his hands. They were shaking violently. His leg was shaking, too. He tried to stand up, and immediately sat back down.
‘Do you think you can get down there alone?’ he asked her.
‘What do you mean? Are you hurt somewhere else?’
He lifted his hands so she could see them.
‘That’s all right, that’s the trauma. It will pass.’
‘No, my heart, too. It feels – it’s gotten wild all of a sudden.’
‘It’s beating hard?’
‘Mine is, too. But we need to help those people. Try to, at least.’
He hesitated. She could see something convulse in his face. ‘I don’t think I can. I think I’ve – I don’t think I can do any more. Help anymore. Look at me.’
‘Jacob,’ Vita said. She was scared, but she didn’t want to show it. ‘Come with me. I need you. You’ll be all right. It doesn’t matter if you’re shaking. Even if you keep shaking. They need our help.’
Jacob looked at her, his eyes wet. He didn’t know what was worse, staying up here, uselessly, or going down there and being useless. He might freeze, like he did when the wagon cart turned over his first day in Lark’s Eye. And earlier, at Andersonville. The moment when he saw the guard lift his gun and point it at the back of Caleb’s head. For half a second he couldn’t find his voice to shout a warning. He was a half second too late.
Now looking down over the gully he could see a couple of men, railroad men by their uniforms, climbing down the embankment. Like Vita, they had blood all over their clothes. Vita reached out and Jacob let her take his hand. His leg still pulsed, but he found, once he got his balance, that he could walk. Making their way down the hill, though, the footing proved tricky, and twice he had to grab a scrub bush for balance.
At the gully floor they were met with open trunks and bags – hand luggage flung from the train car as it fell from the bridge. A jumble of shirts, ties, dresses, and vests littered the scrubby ground.
‘If I can find my carpetbag,’ Vita said, ‘I might be able to find my instruments. You put it in the seat rack above us, remember? It might have been thrown from the train.’
‘I’ll look for it,’ he told her.
Injured passengers were crawling away from the smashed train car, many on only three limbs as they cradled a broken arm or shielded their bleeding heads. Unlike Vita’s car, this car had several ways out of it – holes torn open by the bridgework as it fell – and she thought some people might have been thrown out even as it was going down.
But the car was now engulfed in fire, feeding on the wood and upholstery. No one inside could escape anymore, nor was it possible to help them. The flames were too high and the heat too intense even to get near it. Pieces of charred clothing drifted by in the air.
But I can still help the wounded outside, Vita thought. The two railroad men – George and Orson, they told her – began herding people away from the flames and flying embers. Vita made a quick search for clean clothes to use as bandages, stepping over what she thought at first was a man’s charred hat before she realized it was a dead rat. It must have been holed up in the train car and caught on fire as it ran out. Near it, two smaller rats – babies – lay dead on the ground, their tails just trails of ash.
‘Vee! Your bag!’ Jacob lifted it in the air to show her. It was ripped almost in two and scorched all over. To her dismay, the cloth envelope of instruments was gone. But the bottle of chlorine that she always carried with her, which she’d wrapped up in her old wool shawl, was still intact.
‘Look,’ Jacob said.
Vita followed his gaze. A heavyset man was half leaning and half sitting against a battered fence. She could see at a glance that he had a dislocated shoulder. But worse: his right leg had been shorn off below the knee. He was holding his coat, crimson with blood, against the wound.
‘Can’t feel it at all,’ he told them, perhaps not quite understanding, in his shock, that the lower half of his leg was gone. Vita quickly made a tourniquet out of a child’s pinafore she’d found in a suitcase.
‘What’s your name?’
‘I’m Mrs. Culhane. My husband and I will bandage you up, Mr. Scaletti, and then we’ll find someone to carry you up top. You’ll have to make some adjustments, but you’ll be fine. Make sure you see a doctor every couple of days or so to check the wound, just at the beginning.’
She found two seat cushions to shore up his leg. ‘Now this will hurt a bit.’ She positioned Jacob’s hands on the man’s dislocated shoulder and then cupped the elbow. She pulled his arm inward and up in one swift, firm motion, and felt the bone pop back into place.
‘Put a blanket or anything you can find over Mr. Scaletti, and carry him up as quickly as you can,’ she told Orson and George. ‘Also, maybe you can find him some whiskey?’
‘Is that part of your training?’ Jacob asked, as George and Orson went off. ‘Asking people their names?’
‘I’ve learned that it helps them trust me. And it helps me, too.’
‘How does it help you?’
But she was already rubbing chlorine over her hands again as she headed toward a man holding his arm. ‘Fractured, I’m afraid,’ she said as she examined it gently. ‘I’ll make a splint for it until a doctor can set it. That’ll make you a little more comfortable, Mr. – ?’
But the man, with tears running down into his beard, said only, ‘I need my wife. Who has her?’
‘We’ll look for your wife, don’t worry, but I’m just going to see to you first. I’m Mrs. Culhane.’
She asked Jacob if he could find any wood she might use as a splint. ‘A branch or a plank, something straight.’
Jacob found a scrap of fence railing and Vita tied his arm to the splint with a man’s long silk tie.
‘Where is she, then?’ he asked again. ‘Who has her?’
Jacob touched him carefully by the shoulders. ‘Can you tell me her name? What she looks like?’
But the man could only keep repeating, ‘Where is she? Who has her?’ until George came to lead him away.
Vita tied two more tourniquets, bandaged a child’s ear that had been half shorn off, and then knelt to examine a man’s bleeding leg. He had a half-singed-off mustache and they found him sitting on the bare ground, shaking and whispering to himself. He didn’t stop, even to tell them his name.
‘Firm but not tight,’ Vita told Jacob, who was wrapping the bandage. She touched the man’s torn shirtsleeve. ‘You’ll be all right now, sir. You’re out. You’re safe. Orson here will find someone to lead you up to the town and to a nice, warm room. You would like that, wouldn’t you? You’re all right now.’
She put a blanket around him. The air was bitter with the smell of smoke and burning metal, and townspeople had begun climbing down to the gully with pails of water to put out the fires. As Jacob was helping Vita construct another splint out of a piece of the train’s floorboard so she could set a boy’s broken leg, they heard a shout. George and Orson had a woman between them, half carrying her. It was the heavily pregnant woman who’d been sitting across the aisle from them when they first boarded.
‘You need to get her up the embankment,’ she told the men.
‘She won’t go.’
‘The pains are coming on too quickly,’ the woman said. ‘It hurts too much to move.’
Vita introduced herself, and explained that while she wasn’t a nurse she’d been training with a doctor all this past year.
The woman nodded. ‘I’m Mrs. Laura Randolph, but everyone calls me Mrs. Laura. My husband’s mother and his aunts are all – ’ she broke off and inhaled sharply – ’are all Mrs. Randolphs.’
She bent her head in pain. Another contraction had started.
When it was over she closed her eyes, marshaling her strength.
‘Do you have any family with you?’ Jacob asked.
She shook her head. ‘I was coming back from a visit. I have two children at home. They were both fast births. But this one – ’ She looked at Vita squarely, one woman to another. ‘The foot is out. I can feel it.’
A footling. Vita had heard of this but had never seen one. If a foot was out that meant the baby was in an upright position and would have to be pulled out by its feet. And that meant the head – the widest part – would be delivered last.
A painful birth, and a dangerous one. But at least she didn’t have to turn this baby around, like poor Mary Eileen Doherty’s baby.
‘I have four of my own,’ George said. ‘The last one came quick, like this one.’
Vita tried to think. The depot was too far away, but hadn’t there been a farmhouse near the bridge? And she could see wagons waiting on top of the gully; they could put a mattress in the back of one and drive her there. She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket, thankfully clean, and wiped Mrs. Laura’s brow.
‘Let’s get you inside. I saw a farmhouse not too far from the tracks. And we can make you a comfortable litter to carry you up top.’
‘No,’ Laura said.
‘We have to get you off this damp ground.’
Laura gasped. Another contraction had started. She was right; they were coming on fast.
Jacob said in a low voice, ‘Can we carry her while she’s having a pain?’
‘I would like to,’ Vita said, but Laura, although still in throes of it, heard them and shook her head back and forth.
‘Do you see any doctors?’ Vita asked Jacob. ‘Someone from town should be here by now.’
Men were passing along buckets of water to throw on the fires, while four or five boys helped a line of injured men and women up the scrubby incline.
‘There,’ Jacob said.
Two men – one young and one old, both carrying the black bags of their profession – had just scrambled down the embankment and were looking around at all the bodies and torn-off limbs. Vita saw the younger one bend down, put his hands on his knees, and vomit.
‘I’ll go fetch them,’ Jacob told her.
They introduced themselves as the Doctors Wheeler, father and son. The older one looked irritated when he learned what he’d been called over for.
‘A baby! That’s the emergency?’
‘A footling breech,’ Vita said. ‘The labor is progressing too fast to get her up the embankment. But I can assist you.’
George returned with a bucket of water; he also carried, tucked under his arm, a man’s square leather shaving kit that he’d spotted hanging from a bush.
‘Bless you!’ Vita said. She unzipped it and found, happily, soap and a bottle of oil strapped inside. Orson brought over a clean blanket and two clean shawls, and then he went off to help drag mattresses carrying people too injured to walk up the embankment. George stayed back in case they needed more help.
‘What are you doing?’ Dr. Wheeler asked as Vita began shaking out her bottle of chlorine into the bucket of water.
‘Sterilizing the water. So we can wash in it.’
‘Wash!’ He made the word sound like a sin. ‘Don’t tell me you believe that claptrap.’
Vita was astonished. ‘Haven’t you read Dr. Semmelweis? Or Oliver Wendell Holmes?’
‘Bosh. Doctors aren’t a danger to their patients, we’re the ones who heal them. You only need to oil your hands.’ He turned to his son. ‘Lubricant, that’s all that’s necessary. But first remove your ring, otherwise it might get tarnished.’
‘Have you assisted a breech birth before?’ Vita asked the boy. He had a long curly mustache and was doing his best to look anywhere except at Laura Randolph.
‘Well, no, you see . . .’
His father cut him off. ‘He only just joined me in practice.’
That accounted for his hangdog look, Vita supposed. She was thankful Jacob wasn’t put off by the pregnant woman’s condition. He was kneeling on the ground, holding Mrs. Laura’s hand. Of course, Vita thought, in the war he had probably witnessed much worse.
‘Let’s take a look at how you’re progressing,’ the older Dr. Wheeler said, starting to pull up Laura’s dress.
Vita tried to stop him. ‘Dr. Wheeler. Please. You must wash your hands first. The bucket is all ready, it’s right there.’
‘Now don’t coddle the young woman. It will only encourage her to believe other falsehoods in the future.’
‘It’s not a falsehood. It’s a proven fact.’
‘Oh you midwives! You read one newspaper headline and you think you know as much as a man.’ Then, in a lower voice: ‘If it’s breech then she’ll probably die anyway.’
Not low enough. Laura shot Vita a panicked look. A man began shouting for a doctor, and both the Wheelers looked across the field. Vita knelt down next to Laura. As she put her fingers over the inside of Laura’s wrist to check her pulse, her eyes met Jacob’s. He was on the other side of Laura, still holding her hand. He gave Vita a quick nod, maybe to mean he believed her, or maybe that she should trust the doctor – she wasn’t sure which. Laura’s pulse was slightly elevated, which she expected.
She squeezed Laura’s fingers. Dr. Wheeler was wrong. The evidence was there. Washing hands saved lives, particularly the mothers’. The wind had picked up and was blowing downfield; they should make a windbreak. Maybe get a few boards from the train car, whatever had escaped the fire. Vita squeezed Laura’s hand again and stood up.
‘I’ve delivered babies before,’ she told Dr. Wheeler. ‘I can deliver this one. It seems as though you’re needed over there.’
Jacob, crouching on the dry dirt next to Laura Randolph, was inclined at first to side with the doctor, although he didn’t know anything about babies. There’d been an Irish couple at Andersonville, the Hunts, who’d had a baby – he was born right in camp. It was rumored that both husband and wife had been caught as spies conveying messages in hollowed-out eggs, although no one actually knew, and Mrs. Hunt was one of the few women prisoners at Andersonville. The Hunts were given proper housing (a tent on a wooden platform) once Mrs. Hunt’s condition became known.
Harry, their baby, was a skinny hairless creature, but nearly everyone in camp made it a point to try to see him whenever they could, walking by the Hunts’ little tent hoping for a glimpse. It must have been February or March before Jacob realized he hadn’t seen baby Harry in weeks, only the parents. Had he died? The Hunts left in April and their little tent was immediately cannibalized. Just as well, since groups of Southern women began to visit the camp around that time to gawk and laugh at the prisoners, throwing bread or rocks from the guard towers. The bread, of course, the men would scramble to eat, which made the ladies laugh more. Would they have thrown rocks in the presence of a baby, Jacob wondered? Maybe. Nothing would surprise him.
But when Dr. Wheeler said, ‘She’ll probably die anyway,’ Jacob felt a hot wave rise in his chest, and he wanted to chase both him and his son with his ridiculous mustache away. It was a miracle that Laura Randolph had got out of the train car at all. How could the man not want to do everything in his power to help her?
‘I’m glad they’re gone,’ Jacob said as the doctors walked off.
‘I’ll need your help,’ Vita told him. ‘Can you do it?’
Her face was stiff and pale.
‘Yes,’ he said, not at all sure, and for a moment half wishing he could call the doctors back. He couldn’t help but think of his mother and his sister Gracie, both of whom had died giving birth. But Laura Randolph was nothing like Gracie. Jacob still thought of Gracie as a small barefoot child, whereas Laura Randolph was tall and spoke with a posh, New England accent.
They were sitting at the far end of the field; further than anyone had been thrown, and further than injured passengers should have walked to, although some had out of confusion and shock. The flat expanse reminded Jacob of a field after a battle: bodies like torn paper dolls, corpses still bleeding. The denuded scrub plants that grew along the dry creekbed looked like skeletons waving their stubby little fingers in the wind.
They washed their hands again in the chlorinated water. George hauled a few jagged pieces of the train car wall to make a pallet, covered it with blankets and shawls, and helped Laura onto it. Vita greased her knuckles and the topside of her fingers with the oil from the shaving kit.
‘Lubricant, like Dr. Wheeler said. He was right about that. But I’m not going to lubricate the palm of my hand because I don’t want to lose my grip.’ She knelt beside Laura. ‘Do you mind if I talk out what I’m doing? It helps me concentrate.’
‘I like your voice,’ Laura said.
Vita smiled at that. ‘You’re in the minority, then.’
She asked George to find dishcloths or towels – ’Check the closed trunks, we want them clean’ – and to moisten them with water. Newborns were slippery; she would need the towels for traction.
‘Can you find something to wedge Laura’s hips up?’ This to Jacob. ‘Maybe a train cushion? Wrap it up in something clean first.’
She’d been afraid to look at the baby’s foot, but when she did she was relieved to see that the skin was pinkish red, not blue; it was bright and alive with the blood moving beneath it. The difficulty would be bringing out the baby’s shoulders and head; normally the head, delivered first, expands the birth canal for the rest of the body. In Mary Eileen Doherty’s case, the first twin enlarged the birth canal for the second. Not so here.
George came back with towels and blankets.
‘Jacob, you’ll need to stay behind Mrs. Laura. You might need to hold her. Go on, you can lean against him if you want,’ she said to Laura. She guessed that the contractions had moved the baby fairly far along by now. A fast and dangerous delivery.
Vita grasped the dangling foot just as the other foot was beginning to appear. Bits of whitish-gold membrane stuck to the baby’s skin. Laura was groaning and Vita was concentrating so hard she bit down on her tongue and drew blood. Inch by inch, trying to draw on both tiny legs equally, she pulled the baby down using the moistened cloths like oven mitts. Small thighs, kneecaps like pink gooey nickels. Forgetting herself, Vita almost lost her balance as she half guided half caught the baby, who, as his bottom emerged, twisted himself around; he was facing his mother’s right side now, although at the start he was facing her left.
‘A little boy!’ Vita cried.
Laura wrenched with pain, gasping and moaning. Jacob said, ‘Did you hear that, Mrs. Laura – you have a baby boy!’
Still using the towels, Vita grasped the baby’s tiny bottom with her left hand as she encircled his waist with her right. Knowledge was like wooden steps nailed one against the other: do this, and then this, and then this. She moved her fingers, ready to reach up into the birth canal to assist the head. Later she would have cramps in the backs of her legs from squatting, then kneeling, then squatting again. She hoped with every breath she took that the baby’s umbilical card was floating freely, and not caught around his neck.
‘Push!’ she said.
Laura, grunting with effort, started to slide toward Vita.
‘You’ll have to hold her!’ she told Jacob. Jacob grabbed Laura by the armpits – axilla, from the Latin ala, wing – the words recited themselves in Vita’s brain as she waited for the next movement. But the baby, moving so fast before, was suddenly rock still.
Something was stuck. One slippery arm had come out but not the other. Sometimes a baby traveled the birth canal with his hand raised, and Vita had read about doctors who had to break the slender humerus bone in order to get the infant out. Amelia had been born sucking her thumb, according to Mitty. But when Vita gingerly explored with her fingers, she found that it was the baby’s raised chin, not his arm, that was in the way. Free the chin, she told herself; then you can direct his head with your outside hand, and pull. This then this then this. She carefully unwedged his chin.
‘Jacob, keep holding her tightly. And George, hold her hand. Now squeeze George’s hand hard,’ she said to Laura, ‘and push.’ Laura squeezed his hand. George nodded. ‘That’s right,’ he told her, ‘as hard as you’re able. That’s right, very good!’
‘Keep going,’ Vita said. ‘We’re nearly there.’
She had no instruments with her, no forceps. In any case the baby’s head was at a difficult angle for forceps. A flock of crows chose that moment to start calling out – they sounded indignant. When they finished, another set took up the argument.
‘At your next labor pain, push,’ Vita said through gritted teeth. ‘Give it all your strength.’
She could feel the baby’s skull with her outside hand. Then she felt Laura’s womb contract.
‘Push, Laura. You can do it. Push.’
Laura grunted, grimaced, pushed; and then the miracle happened: the baby’s head emerged. Vita felt an unexpected, shivery shock, and tears came into her eyes. She splayed her fingers against the back of the baby’s gummy head, resting the fat wedge of his neck in the palm of her hand. He was out. He was breathing. His huge eyes were wet and open.
Laura gasped. ‘Is he all right?’
‘He’s wonderful!’ Vita used the clean corner of a towel to check his nostrils. Her heart felt like a released balloon. ‘A healthy baby boy. Let’s get him warm. Then I’ll cut the cord.’
He was greasy with vernix but healthy and whole. A miracle. I’ve come to medicine backwards, she thought; the miracle didn’t inspire her, it surprised her. George wrapped the baby in a soft pink shawl, winding the fabric round and round, while Vita delivered the afterbirth, which slipped out a few minutes later like a postscript. The arguing crows rose up and, as if taking off to herald a new king, swooped left and right before soaring away.
‘You did it!’ Jacob said. He was looking at Vita. Then he looked at Laura. ‘You too!’
They laughed. George wiped his eyes. ‘A perfect baby boy,’ he said.
The feeling of triumph stayed with Jacob as he helped cut the umbilical cord, washed the blood from his hands and wrists, and dried himself off with some poor fellow’s shirt.
He had never felt like this before. Not even after a hard-won battle, although when he enlisted he thought this was exactly how he would feel. Trying on his uniform coat for the first time, bumbling with the armholes, he remembered thinking how jubilant he would feel in that coat after killing his enemies, the bastards. But he had been wrong. He had never felt jubilant.
A few thickset boys were pulling mattresses behind them in pairs, hauling up the last of the injured. The train car fires were finally out, though still smoldering. Vita stood and stretched. Then she scanned the field.
‘I think everyone is taken care of by now,’ Jacob told her.
He took her hand. She curled her fingers within his palm and stuck her thumb out on top of his knuckles. ‘But shouldn’t we make certain?’ she asked.
We. The single short syllable made his heart fold over.
He could see cliff swallows beginning to descend from the mangled bridgework, looping their crazy loops; they were probably only hungry but seemed panicked and lost. He recognized the feeling, though he didn’t feel it now. He felt useful and needed. George was bustling about like a mother hen, spreading a navy overcoat around Laura as she held her son to her chest. Soon Jacob would help George bring Laura and the baby up to the top of the embankment, and then he would climb back down and walk the field with Vita to make sure no one had been overlooked. After that they would climb up to the road again. An unofficial-looking man would help them into a wagon cart and drive them to a house in town, where they would wash, and eat, and sleep.
But for a moment Jacob just stood there, holding her hand.
‘We should go back to Cleveland in the morning,’ he said.
Vita looked up at him. Her face was smeared with sweat and dirt. ‘Why?’
‘Your interview tomorrow, at the medical college. You should go.’
’But neither the advice to go to Paris nor the suggestion of a [male] disguise tempted me for a moment. It was to my mind a moral crusade on which I had entered, a course of justice and common sense, and it must be pursued in the light of the day.’
(Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession for Women, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D., 1895)
Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 9, 1866
‘Horrifying Railroad Accident on the Buffalo & Erie Railway’
‘A Passenger Car Thrown Down an Embankment! Twenty-Two Burned to Death! Sickening and Heart-Rending Scenes and Incidents!’
We are saddened to report a frightful railroad accident that occurred about one-half mile from the Gillis depot at approximately 12:00 noon this day.
After a sudden derailment and subsequent uncoupling on a bridge near the town of Gillis, New York, two train cars fell off their tracks, one falling nineteen feet to the ravine below. Most of those killed were in the last train car. Mrs. Eileen Weaver of Cleveland heroically helped a young Akron boy and his mother escape; the mother suffered a dreadful fracture of her left leg from which the bones protruded. Mrs. Atwater, of Castalia, with two children – a boy and girl – were unable to escape the flaming car and died therein. Another family, charred beyond recognition, were believed to be Catholic due to a crucifix found in their possession, and were taken to St. Mary’s Catholic Church until their identities could be fixed.
Within a very short time after the accident, Gillis Mayor Mr. William Dudley Manning dispatched a horse and cart to the scene of the disaster, containing buckets, mattresses, bandages, and other needed materials. Mr. Manning himself helped rescue survivors. The Doctors Wheeler (father and son) also volunteered their services to the injured. With their assistance, and in the midst of this tragedy, a Mrs. Laura Randolph from Mayville, New York, gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Both mother and son are doing well.
The Relief Train – the special train for the survivors – was scheduled to arrive in Gillis by mid-morning using a sidetrack. Thirty-one corpses were laid out for the night in the freight house, while maintenance men from the Buffalo and Erie Railroad walked the length of the track with lanterns, examining the twisted rails that rose up, at the place of derailment, almost six feet from the ground.
Vita’s black trunk – if it survived – would be loaded onto the Relief Train, bound for Buffalo, but she and Jacob took the Cincinnati Express at six in the morning. They’d been given beds for the night in a house in town, but Vita woke up still exhausted. Her bones felt like thin bendable twigs that could barely support her, and her throat was raspy from smoke.
‘You’ll be fine,’ Jacob said.
‘Except for the small fact that they don’t admit women.’
‘You’ll have to convince them to make an exception.’
They changed trains at Dayton, and then again in Maryville. It was just past noon when they arrived back in Cleveland. Outside Union Station, bricklayers and masons were sitting on the curb or leaning on tethering posts, eating their lunches. Vita and Jacob took a cab to Mrs. McDove’s, hoping that one of the Miss Pickens might lend Vita a coat to cover her blood-spattered dress.
The younger Miss Pickens, alone in the house, smiled when she saw them. ‘Back so soon with your handsome husband?’ But her face turned pale as Vita explained about the accident. And when she heard about Vita’s interview, she said, ‘We can do better than just a coat, surely.’
Vita tried on dresses while Jacob waited in the parlor. But all the dresses were too long for her and too tight in the shoulders. Finally Miss Pickens found a somber, charcoal-colored wool (her sister’s, who was shorter) that would do. She knelt to tack the hem with a few stitches.
‘This won’t last but a day,’ she warned.
‘I only need a couple of hours.’
‘But your voice, it sounds terrible! Can’t you put off your appointment?’
‘I’m afraid I can’t.’
‘Then how about a little tea with honey and lemon?’
She didn’t have time for that, either. She simply had to pray that she wouldn’t lose her voice entirely before the interview was over.
‘At least let me get you a peppermint,’ Miss Pickens said.
Vita looked at herself in the hall mirror. She felt as though she were in a disguise. Would she remember everything? Elbow: olecranon. Outer bone: radius. Inner bone: ulna. Jacob nodded at her reflection.
‘You look like a doctor already,’ he said. ‘But without the bag.’ She was too nervous to smile back.
Miss Pickens loaned her a small hat with a speckled feather in the band.
‘It’s a lark’s feather,’ Jacob said.
‘And larks bring luck. My mother used to say that. To the sick especially.’
Vita took the hatpin Miss Pickens held out and angled it expertly through the stiff cloth. ‘I thought it was bad luck?’
‘Well,’ Jacob admitted, ‘it can go either way.’
That sounds about right, Vita thought.
It was after one-thirty. The interview was scheduled for two. Although Jacob urged the cab driver to put the horse to a trot, they went as slow as a milk wagon through the streets.
‘It is a full three minutes past the hour,’ the dean said, opening his office door. Then he took her in. ‘Oh, excuse me, madam. I thought you were my afternoon appointment.’
‘V. Culhane?’ Vita asked.
He cocked his head. ‘That’s right.’
She held out her hand. ‘So nice to meet you, Dr. Cassels. I’m Mrs. Vita Culhane.’
His eyes narrowed in surprise. She could see past him to his dark-paneled office, so like Dar’s: the same thick carpet and long desk with its requisite animal skull paperweight. In place of Dar’s framed beetles, a row of ink drawings – different views of the human heart – hung on the wall, glittering under glass.
‘Your office reminds me of my father’s office,’ she heard herself say hoarsely. She tried to get her voice up. ‘He’s a physician in Lark’s Eye, Massachusetts. May I come in?’
‘A physician, is he? Where did he get his degree?’
The magic word. He stepped aside.
‘I suppose your father encouraged your interest in medicine?’ he asked as she walked in.
‘Yes, my father is very . . .’ Very what? ‘He has hopes for me.’ Not entirely a lie. ‘Though in truth it was my brother who was supposed to be the doctor. Sadly, he was killed in the war.’
‘I’m so sorry.’ Dr. Cassels shook his head. ‘All these young men, so terrible. Which regiment was he in?’
‘The 28th Massachusetts Infantry.’ She swallowed again. ‘And so, instead of him, here I am. Following in my father’s footsteps.’
They were still standing near the door, and he did not ask her to sit. There was no noise beyond the thick walls of his office. She’d left Jacob on the ground floor, sitting on a cane chair by the door reading a newspaper. The dean wore a watch on a chain tucked into his waistcoat. He pulled it out to take a look at it.
‘I’m afraid you’ve come to no purpose, my dear. If I’d have known you were a woman I would have answered your letter quite differently. We don’t admit women to our lectures. Not anymore. Women are too sensitive for this kind of thing.’
She smiled. ‘I’m hoping I can change your mind.’
‘I rather think not. We did try it, female students, but it was unsuccessful.’
He began to outline their troubles with the women; how he learned that one woman had previously studied an alternative medicine – ’Grahamism, so ridiculous’ – and was, ‘naturally,’ expelled immediately. Another was discovered to be pregnant. A third stopped coming to classes after the fourth week, the course being simply too difficult for her.
‘And you’ve never had your male students stop attending, or study alternative courses on the sly?’
‘There’s also the fact that any woman in a lecture hall will be distracting to the male students. The sound of her skirts alone.’
He had an air of producing logical arguments one by one, regardless of their illogical nature. ‘We decided that it was inexpedient to admit women just at this time. We took a vote.’
Inexpedient, like Dar’s ‘unnecessary,’ was a useful word, Vita thought. No need to say that women were not worthy enough or intelligent enough, you only had to say that the time was not suitable. But suitable for what? For whom?
‘There are some,’ she argued, ‘who believe that female patients might be more comfortable seeing a female doctor.’ An argument she’d tried with her father.
‘As to that, I am proud to say that I have seen quite the opposite – ladies who choose to suffer extreme pain rather than submit to an indelicate examination by a man.’
‘You would rather see women remain in pain than be treated for it?’
‘No, no; not I,’ the dean answered, smiling. ‘The women themselves choose it. Quite noble of them.’
Did the idea of women choosing pain make him happy?
‘My dear, I can see you mean well, but you would not be able to endure the kind of horrors we doctors face every day – really you have no idea. Despite your father. A country doctor,’ he added.
Vita started to tell him all the wounds and illnesses she’d seen as an apprentice – amputations, syphilis – but he turned his head.
‘It is simply inexpedient right now.’
They were still standing. She could see that he expected her to make some polite comment expressing her disappointment and take her leave. Instead she said, ‘Surely you must have some discretion in the matter. May I sit?’
She could move fast when she needed to. By the time he thought to put his hand to his waistcoat pocket again in prelude to checking the time, she was lowering herself in the leather-backed chair facing his desk.
‘You admitted a woman two years ago, I believe.’ Lucy had told her this, and although it was a small hole, the tiniest chink, she would try to crawl through it.
‘Ah, Mary Bradford. Yes, well, Mrs. Bradford was married to one of the students, and she had her husband to assist her.’ Instead of sitting behind his desk, Dr. Cassels pulled out the matching leather chair to Vita’s, and sat facing her at a three-quarter turn, as though underscoring that this was a casual conversation and not an interview.
‘Your husband is not a doctor, I presume?’
For a moment she was tempted to lie. ‘No.’
‘So there would be no man to help you with the more difficult work.’
She felt her chest burn. Her voice was getting worse but she had to keep pleading her case. ‘I studied in the office of Dr. David Boutwell. Here is a letter of recommendation from him.’ Dr. Cassels took the proffered letter but made no move to read it. ‘I’ve read Quincy’s Dispensatory, Haller’s Physiology, as well as Jones, Boerhaave, and Vansweiten. I know Latin and Greek, and I’ve studied algebra since I was a young girl.’
She took a breath and was about to go on when she noticed that Dr. Cassels was looking not at her, but at her shoes. Glancing down, Vita saw that they were spattered with blood. She had forgotten to change them. She’d thought about the dress, but not the shoes. Maybe the stains could be taken for mud? But then he would think she was slovenly.
‘I’ve just come from the train station. That’s why I was late.’ She took a chance. ‘My husband and I were on the Express train that derailed yesterday near Gillis. You heard about that?’
‘What, you mean that terrible train crash?’
‘We had been sitting in the last car, but we were lucky enough to get to the car in front before it fell off the bridge. That car also derailed, but at least we got over the ravine. We had to crawl out of it while it burned up. Others were not so lucky.’
The dean leaned forward, all attention now.
‘There were no doctors there at first, of course, so my husband and I did what we could for the injured. I had some supplies with me. Well, a bottle of chlorine to wash our hands. My instruments were lost when my bag was ripped open. We made bandages out of any clean clothes we could find.’
‘Chlorine, that was fortunate.’
Inspired, she looked around the room. On a little square table near the bookshelves she spied an arrangement of wooden instruments and rolled bandages. She fetched the rolled bandages and a pair of scissors.
‘For a sprained arm,’ she began winding the bandages around Dr. Cassels’s forearm. ‘You must always apply the bandage in a right angle to prevent hyperextension. For the knee, I used the Duke of Simpson strapping to prevent a recurrent sprain.’ She demonstrated on his left knee.
‘A man’s leg had been shorn off at the calf. I applied a tourniquet here,’ she showed him her technique, ‘tighter than this, of course. We stopped the blood flow and I believe there was enough saved skin for a sufficient flap. Another man’s head was cleaved in two; nothing to be done about that. You talk about being sensitive, but there was no time to be sensitive. There were so many head wounds and fractured limbs, some with the bones protruding. And countless burns, which I doused in cold water. I attended them all. A boy and a young man both suffered broken arms; I splintered them like so.’ She found a ruler to demonstrate. ‘With planks of wood from the train car.’
The dean watched – first her face and then her hands – as she bandaged and splintered him; an eyebrow dressing here, a mastoid bandage there. ‘At the very end I delivered a baby, a footling breech. The labor was progressing too fast to get her up to a farmhouse. The baby’s chin got stuck in the birth canal, but I was able to unwedge it by hand. Both mother and son survived, and are doing well. Mrs. Laura Randolph. You might read about her.’
By now her throat was positively raw. She stopped and swallowed, trying to wet it. Was it enough? Had she demonstrated enough? The dean glanced down at himself: white strips of cloth streamed from his arms and head and one leg.
‘I feel like a maypole,’ he said with a hint of a smile, and her heart lifted.
‘I suppose I will read all about your heroics in the newspapers tonight?’
‘Eventually a couple of doctors came down from the village. Dr. Wheeler and his son. They were the ones talking to the newspapermen, not I.’ A thought struck her. ‘You don’t believe me?’
‘No, no. I believe you. Either that, or you’re the best actress in Cleveland. These knots are quite well done. Dr. Boutwell trained you well.’
He was struggling to free himself from the bandages, and she knelt to help him. He had thick fingers with very square tips.
‘We do have some discretion, it’s true. The dean is allowed to nominate unusual candidates. As in the case of Mrs. Bradford. Well, I’ll see what I can manage. No promises, you understand.’ Rising from the chair, he said, ‘You have a nice quiet voice, my dear. Nice and soothing.’
She was about to explain about the smoke, but stopped herself.
‘Those passengers were lucky you were there. But why were you going to Buffalo if you had your interview with me today?’
It was not difficult to smile and, without answering, turn her attention to tidying the room. ‘Goodness, haven’t I made a mess here.’ For a moment she felt like Amelia, who always knew how to get what she wanted. The dean still had a ruler splintered to his forearm.
‘Let me help you remove that, Dr. Cassels,’ she said.
’The Lantern is a woman’s rights paper, and believes in allowing women to do anything that they can do as well as men, and is in favor of paying them as well as men are paid for the same work, taking all things into consideration. But it is opposed to their trifling with human life by trying to doctor a total stranger. That is why we are sternly opposed to the innovation; and, as we said before, we will set our face against female doctors until we are old and toothless.’
(The London Lantern, 1882)
September 1866, Cleveland, Ohio
Vita walked into the classroom three minutes before the start of the lecture. Although she did not want to cut it too fine, the few minutes before the professor arrived were always the worst. That was when the male students would all be joking with each other, telling anecdotes or relating personal news; like the women of stereotype, they loved to tell each other about sales they’d stumbled into, or clever purchases they’d made. They never spoke about medicine.
The lecture hall was on the second floor of the St. Clair building and smelled of dry wood, chalk, and cleaning ammonia. It had a high ceiling and long, leaded-glass windows on its east-facing wall, and in spite of the Gothic influence it felt bright and cheerful inside, at least in the morning. Vita sat near the windows behind a narrow oak table with a long, slightly uneven drawer in the middle. There were thirty such tables in the room, each accommodating two students who sat on high wooden stools. They faced the dais where a different professor lectured each day. Occasionally – and occasionally legibly – the professor chalked up something on the board behind him.
On her first day, arriving twenty minutes early out of nervousness, Vita felt the men glance her way and then turn to make low comments to each other. Waves of discomfort swept over her. ‘A visit by a hot stream of ghosts,’ Mrs. O. used to call it. Vita had dressed carefully in a plain dove-gray dress and a starched linen collar, with no adornments except her wedding ring. A man who introduced himself as Gravel came up to where she sat.
‘We’re doing a dissection today. A cockroach,’ he said, watching her face.
‘Yes, I know.’ Notices about upcoming lectures were pinned up outside the classrooms.
‘Won’t those get in the way?’
‘Won’t what get in the way?’
‘Your little apples,’ Gravel said, looking at her breasts.
She stayed away from Gravel after that.
She also stayed away from Burgher, who rubbed against her arm whenever he slid by her, and Jefferson, who once asked if he could examine her calf muscle, and a few others who just had a look in their eyes. In this class, Anatomy, she knew all the men’s names because Professor Horton admired the Socratic method, and he constantly called on students to answer his questions, even the rhetorical ones. He never called on Vita, though.
Now, as she settled herself on the stool – only one more minute remaining – she half listened to the chatter around her; most of them were discussing the recent fire at Woolson’s Foundry, with a rumble of guesses on what might have caused it. The stool beside her stood empty; a student named Finn used to sit there. He’d been one of the nicer ones. A couple of weeks into the class he asked her whether she was ‘finding all this a bit tough-going.’
‘A bit,’ she admitted. ‘You?’
‘Not at all,’ he answered breezily. ‘My father’s a doctor, you see.’ But he stopped going to class after the first set of examinations.
When Vita dissected her first cadaver, everyone expected her to be sick. Instead it was Gravel who was sick. She worked steadily for over five hours separating and defining each nerve, each blood vessel, every tendon. The valves, the organs, the sinews. The human body was like a three-dimensional mathematical equation, she thought as she stood there in her rubber apron, beautiful in its machinery, most of it still mysterious. She wished she could discuss it with someone. She envied the men who went off together afterward; over lunch, she imagined, they might discuss the position of the intestinal folds, or the swelling of the mucous membrane. Later she learned – from Finn, before he disappeared – that they mostly talked about girls or the cost of meals.
It was their camaraderie that made her feel lonely, although it was worse when they sought her out (‘your little apples’). When she came to class now, their eyes landed on her only briefly before turning back to their chats. They were getting used to her, but they did not like her. Their refusal to see her as a peer was like a wall that protected them, while she in turn saw them as skinny rabbits, shivering in the sun. They had ropy haunches and quick eyes, and although they were not afraid, they were vulnerable. They needed each other’s friendship and approval in order to shore up their confidence. Meanwhile, she studied.
Just as the clock struck the hour Professor Horton strode in with his long black robe flapping behind him as if struggling to keep up. At the front of the room he took a moment to look over the students, while they quite correctly took that as a sign to quiet down. His eyes swept over Vita as they did over everyone else. At least she was no different in that.
‘Today we’ll be discussing the human eye,’ Professor Horton began. ‘I trust you’ve all read your Mackenzie. Who can list for me the three protective parts?’
Sclerotica, cornea, and choroid. Last night she had stayed up reading about the eye until her lamp oil ran out. When she got into bed, Jacob did not so much as roll over, although he made a small noise, almost a word, as she took his hand and kissed it.
‘Burgher? What say you?’ Professor Horton enjoyed posing as a Shakespearean actor when addressing his students.
‘Sclerotica, cornea, and choroid,’ Burgher said.
‘Very good. And what is another name we use for protective parts?’ He gave the words a theatrical emphasis with a roll of his tongue. Tunics, Vita thought, and Burgher said the same.
‘Tunics. Correct. You may recall that injury to the tunic may lead to inflammation. That is all, Mr. Burgher.’
Burgher sat down, pleased with himself.
When he was in school, Dr. Boutwell told Vita, they were taught that placing leeches on a man’s eyelids would cure eye inflammation. ‘Foolish, we know now. I sometimes wonder what else we’ll realize is foolish in the years to come. You’ll have to get used to the notion that you’ll be tested on facts that may later prove to be mistaken.’
‘But why do some doctors persist in believing outdated ideas, even with mounting evidence?’ She was thinking of old Dr. Wheeler at the train accident, who refused on principle to wash his hands. Or her father, for that matter.
‘People want to believe that facts, some facts at least, never change,’ Dr. Boutwell had said. ‘A very human desire.’
The world was full of absurdities posing as truth, Vita thought, and not only in medicine. The problem, though, was that if you didn’t move forward regardless, you’d have no chance of discovering the real truth. Which, of course, might also turn out to be false later on. How do you hold ‘truth’ both firmly and lightly at the same time?
Sunlight pierced the leaded glass windows as Professor Horton began lecturing on the blind spot in the eye, first discovered by Edme Mariotte in 1660. Vita had already read and taken notes on this phenomenon last night, while Jacob slept with a stocking tied over his eyes to block out the light. As the professor described Mariotte’s findings there was a knock at the door. A man in a janitor’s cap limped in, pushing a wooden cart before him.
‘Ah, here we are, gentlemen,’ Professor Horton said happily, addressing the students. ‘Our cow eyes. Pair up, if you please.’
The dissection of the cows’ eyes could now begin. The students stood and looked around for partners. Vita waited to see who would be the odd man out, the unlucky fellow who had to make his way over to her. Not for the first time she missed Finn, the only student who would willingly partner with her. But perhaps the difference between Finn and herself was that she expected ‘all this’ to be difficult. She felt a tingling kind of power standing there by her table, knowing that if no one paired with her, she was prepared to perform the dissection alone.
Jacob and Soot sat on a stone bench beneath a fruiting maidenhair tree near the St. Clair building, waiting for Vita. Soot swung his legs vigorously, his toes sometimes clipping the dirt. It was lunchtime, and for Soot a half-holiday from school. Jacob had announced he would take them all out for ice cream if he got the job he was interviewing for that morning.
‘Do another,’ Soot told him. They were sharing a bag of shelled peanuts. Jacob took a peanut, threw it in the air, and caught it in his open mouth. This had been their act for the past ten minutes.
‘Now me,’ Soot said, trying to do the same. This time he managed to catch his.
Jacob and Vita had set up residence in Mrs. McDove’s adjoining rooms on the second floor, recently vacated by the Miss Pickens sisters. After the younger Miss Pickens, Anna, had married Mr. Nowicki, they all three decamped to a pale yellow brick house in Willoughby, Ohio – Jacob and Vita had visited them there twice. Reverend Simpers had started a school, The Ragged School, for poor factory workers’ children, and was courting the rich daughter of a steel magnate who lived on Euclid Avenue, a Miss Augusta Gephard. Jacob had met her once, a silly creature in his view, who never took off her gloves and who declared that she ‘liked nothing better than to help the poor unclean children at the reverend’s little school.’
‘Are you going to be hungry for ice cream after all those nuts?’ Jacob asked Soot.
Soot scowled. ‘You’ve aten more than half of them.’
Jacob’s interview had been at a company called Standard Works, founded by John D. Rockefeller; the D was never left off his name, and Jacob fancied it stood for Determined. Vita’s friend Lucy Frost had a husband who worked for Standard Works, and she told Vita about the job. It was on the cooper side of the operation under a man named George Hopper, who had been experimenting with a binding mixture that would keep Rockefeller’s oil barrels leak-free. Jacob brought along his plans for barrel glue – Caleb’s plans – to his interview, and Hopper was suitably impressed. He offered him the job on the spot.
So, not a lone inventor with a partner, but a man in a team. Collaboration, George Hopper declared, that’s what the modern workforce would all be about. They would share the credit, although not, Jacob suspected, the profit. Still, the salary was a fine one, and he would be working in the heart of an up-and-coming city, a city of the new age, the modern age, the age of commerce. Or so George Hopper said. George Hopper said a lot of fine things that morning. And to be honest, Jacob found it thrilling just to walk into the new, stone building full of men in shiny dark suits running up and down the stairs, bursting into office rooms, and talking excitedly over sandwiches – a palpable atmosphere of innovation.
He looked forward to discussing his new work with Vita. A woman interested in the problem of glue! His father would never have believed it; he would have scoffed at what he considered her pretenses. Yet one more way, Jacob thought (hoped), that I’m different from him.
His nightmares and tremors still came on unexpectedly. But he warmed to their talk, and to, of course, the delicious feel of their damp skins kissing, the smells they brought up in Mrs. McDove’s old horsehair mattress. They were always careful about French letters, which they began to call the Simpers after Vita told him the story of that dinner conversation. ‘Let me just get one of the Simpers.’ He loved the cloud the two of them made together, heavy and light at the same time. He loved when their limbs were so entwined that it was hard to think of them as separate.
Vita gave him tonics and rubbed his temples with eucalyptus oil when the shaking was bad. Part of him liked that she went off to work or class every day, though part of him was nervous, too – what would she find out there in the world? But now, starting Monday, he would be out in the world, too. He would have his turn telling her stories about the men in his office, the work, even the great man himself, if he saw him – Mr. Rockefeller. Jacob could picture Vita’s face as she listened, tightening her lips as she did when she was getting ready to ask him a question.
The campanile chimed the hour, and students began streaming down the steps of the building like rice scattering out of a tipped sack.
‘There she is,’ Soot announced. He crushed the empty peanut bag in his fist and hopped off the bench with some attempt at ceremony, followed by a slight stumble. Vita was walking down the steps, turning her head to look for them. A small oval of space surrounded her; all the other students walked in twos and threes but she was alone. Like an exotic species of plant, Jacob thought. He felt himself smile.
‘You have the job?’
Jacob took her hand and kissed it. Her face flushed warm with pleasure.
‘Beginning on Monday.’
They smiled at each other.
‘Any dissections today?’ Soot asked her.
‘An eye. A cow’s eye.’
Jacob winked at Soot. ‘Illuminating, I’m sure.’
‘Why a cow?’ Soot asked.
They headed toward the street. Ice cream had been promised, and the warm day felt more like the beginning of summer than the end. They passed a flurry of circulars pasted on tree trunks advertising a ‘Traveling Exhibition’ of a giraffe, an ibex, and a Belgian giant. While they walked Vita told Soot about Mariotte’s blind spot, the place in the retina that had no photoreceptors – no cells that are sensitive to light.
‘He discovered this by dissection. By looking at the various parts of the eye. Just as we were doing today. And because he found no photoreceptors in that area, not even one, he deduced that there must be a blind spot there. A piece of the world that the eye can’t see. Cows – cow eyes – are the same.’
‘But I can see everything just fine.’
‘That’s the miracle: our brains use the surrounding details to fill in the gap. We don’t see it, physically; we only believe that we see it.’
The mild wind felt soft on her face. She made a fist and tapped it against her mouth, covering a yawn. But wasn’t it pleasant, she thought, to be tired and to walk slowly in the sun? She took Jacob’s arm and squeezed it. As they crossed the road, she caught a whiff of sawdust from construction down the street. Another building going up.
‘I’m going to be a doctor, too,’ Soot announced.
‘You already know more than half the students here, I’d wager,’ Jacob said with a grin.
‘Why do you want to?’ Vita asked.
‘If you’re a doctor you know everything! You know things about somebody even they don’t know. Also you get to cut up bodies and look at them.’
‘Dissection is only a small part. Most of the time we’re talking to people, to patients, trying to work out what’s wrong.’
‘Oh, well, that’s easy,’ Soot said. ‘Talking to folks.’
Vita tilted her head. ‘You might think.’
At the ice cream kiosk she asked for vanilla, while Soot and Jacob opted for chocolate. Freddy always preferred chocolate, too. Vita could picture him eating ice cream on a bench on the Lark’s Eye town green, a smear of chocolate on his chin. She liked to remember him doing ordinary things like that. In the kitchen on his hands and knees with Riddle, when Riddle was a puppy. Or patiently teaching Sweetie a new trick. He’d always been more patient than she was. Dr. Boutwell said he’d wanted to work with animals, and sometimes she allowed herself a daydream in which Freddy had survived the war and did just that. But if Freddy had lived – and this was so hard to admit – she probably would have stayed in Lark’s Eye despite all her dreams. She would have never married Jacob, never studied medicine. Her father, and the world in general, was so much against her. As a girl, dreaming, she didn’t let that in. Probably for the best. Hope was the easy part.
‘Should we find somewhere to sit?’ Jacob asked, handing her the paper cup of vanilla ice cream. ‘Or do you want to keep walking?’
‘Let’s keep walking.’
She loved the smell of all the trees that grew along the street, hickory and bur oak and maple; they were leafy and redolent, with leaves every shade of green. So different than the decimated fields in Lark’s Eye. She’d not been back there yet, though she hoped to go between terms to see Amelia’s new baby girl. Dar, who had been told of Vita’s college admission, had so far not written to her, not even to answer her letter. However, Mitty had come to Cleveland for a week, and then left to visit an old school friend living in Boston, Mrs. Deborah DeLong, for a full month. Mitty loved going to all the museums and public lectures – ’Everything I wanted for you’ – and now might stay even longer, as Mrs. O. was perfectly capable of looking after Dar and the house and really all of Lark’s Eye if she had to.
I’m particularly enjoying the Geographical Society lectures, Mitty wrote, and have volunteered some of my time to copy correspondence for them. Such interesting expeditions! Sadly your father is still trapped in his own unchanging world. Six scrapbooks now on how the war could have been won in the first year, or the second, if this or that had been done – and his son would then still be alive. All these articles he’s collected to prove a point that can’t be proven! And yet he continues, trying to bolster his case.
Vita finished her ice cream and took Jacob’s arm again. He and Soot had begun to talk about the cutter races on Euclid Avenue in the winter, and then about horses in general. The trees are greener here, Vita thought, but the stars are brighter in Lark’s Eye. At least she remembered them that way. On clear summer nights Freddy used to take his telescope outside, and while Vita waited beside him – for hours and hours it felt like – he fiddled with the focusing knob.
‘Now look through this,’ he would say at last, ‘and tell me what you see.’
To her the sky was just a jumble of winking lights. She pressed her eye closer to the eyepiece. Blinked. Focused.
‘Really look,’ Freddy said.