1635: The Eastern Front — Snippet 50
Dresden was chaos. The cavalrymen escorting the ambulance wagons to the army hospital set up in a wing of the Residenzschloss were making no more headway than an old woman pushing a cart.
So it seemed to Eric Krenz, anyway. He stuck his head out of the rear flap of the covered wagon and tried to look forward. But that was impossible, between the stupid design of the wagon — what idiot thought it was a good idea to turn a nice open wagon into a heat trap? — and the relative immobility produced by his healing wound.
Disgusted, he flopped back onto the bench. “What we need are some Finns.” He made chopping motions, as if wielding an ax. “Haakaa päälle! Haakaa päälle! That’d clear the way for us, see if it wouldn’t.”
“Shut up.” A Pomeranian corporal whose name Eric couldn’t remember said that through clenched teeth. “You’re giving me a headache.”
Judging from his condition, Eric didn’t think the fellow would be suffering much longer. But perhaps that was just wishful thinking. The corporal had been groaning and moaning most of the way here, when he wasn’t snarling at everyone else if they moaned and groaned.
Well, it should be over soon. A nice army hospital, friendly nurses, what could be better?
He must have said it out loud. The soldier slumped next to him, a young lieutenant whose name Eric had also forgotten, raised his head. “You’ve been to one?”
“Well. No. Never seen one, in fact. But the stories all agree. Especially about the friendly nurses. What’s your name again?”
“Nagel. Friedrich Nagel.”
“Eric Krenz. A pleasure.” They shook hands.
“It’s a pigsty,” was Nagel’s summary. He nodded toward the one and only nurse visible in the huge… whatever the room was. Judging by the sour smell and the dank walls, probably one of the castle’s less frequently used storerooms.
“As for that nurse,” the lieutenant continued, “let us pray that she never comes near us. Lest she becomes friendly.”
Eric wasn’t entirely sure the nurse was a “she” to begin with. The distance was great enough that it was difficult to tell.
The Pomeranian corporal started moaning and groaning again.
“And to think our lives will end here,” mused Nagel. “Such is ignominy.”
“Do you think we could get something to eat?”
“Must you dredge up my worst fears?”
They got nothing to eat that night beyond a half-loaf of bread. The same nurse came through two hours later, followed by two orderlies carrying baskets full of bread. At each pair of cots, the nurse would take out a loaf, rip it into halves, and hand them to the wounded soldiers. Then, without saying a word, move on.
The orderlies were female. Mediocre versions of the gender, to say the least. But definitely female.
Eric still wasn’t sure about the nurse.
An hour later, the same trio passed down the line of cots in the great vaulted room again. This time, the orderlies were carrying buckets of water, from which the nurse would fill what looked like an old soup ladle — best not to think about the precise nature of the soup — and place it to the mouth of each soldier. The one poor fool who tried to hold the ladle bowl in his own hand to keep it from spilling got the ladle snatched away and his ear boxed.
Clearly, this was not a nurse to be trifled with.
For the selfsame reason, Krenz refrained from pointing out to the trio of medical geniuses that it would have made more sense to give them water first, and food later. That being every human body’s definite priority.
But he kept his silence, swallowed what he could from the ladle — from the taste, he thought it had probably once been a Mongol ladle, used to drink kumiss or whatever the heathens called that horrid fermented milk they drank
— and let the nurse and her companions pass on.
He still hadn’t determined her gender. “We need a name for it,” he whispered to Nagel.
“Leviathan comes to mind,” he whispered back. “Though I’d favor Moloch, myself.”
“Moloch it is, then.”
Things did not improve in the morning. Moloch was absent, thankfully, but the nurse who replaced the creature was little improvement. True, she was female. Unfortunately, of the elderly rather than youthful disposition; and, far worse — Eric had a very good-natured grandmother, after all — she subscribed to that school of thought which held that in old age a woman should cultivate the virtues of haggery and witchery. Had there been milk, she would have turned it sour.
There wasn’t, of course. Water and bread, as the night before. The bread was stale. The water had a definite green tinge to it.
“I am becoming disillusioned,” Eric announced to Friedrich.
His new friend proved to be an educated man. “I had no illusions to begin with. Having studied the classics, I know the fate of man. The best you can hope for is to fuck your mother, put your eyes out, and die in exile.”
Eric thought that was something of an exaggeration. Not much, though, judging from current evidence.
“There’s one piece of good news,” Nagel added.
The lieutenant jerked a thumb in the direction of the moaner and groaner’s cot. “I think the Pomeranian finally died.”
Alas, that too was an illusion. No more than two seconds later, the corporal started moaning and groaning again. Calling out for water and bread, if you could believe it.
Reprieve finally came at noon. There was a commotion at the entrance and a small group of people forced their way into the room. “Forced” was the proper term, too. Moloch and the harridan-nurse were trying to prevent them from entering. Quite forcefully, in fact.
That all ended when a short, stout person in the midst of the newcomers knocked the harridan flat with a mighty blow and even caused Moloch to back up a step or two. Thereafter, the nurse-Leviathan was kept pinned to the wall by two more of the newcomers, armed with spears of some sort.
The one who’d sent the old witch flying marched down the aisle in the center of the room. By the time she was within thirty feet, Eric realized she was a woman. Young, too. And what he has taken at a distance for stoutness was mostly something entirely different and far more admirable.
“She’s a vision!” he exclaimed.
Nagel was made of sterner stuff. “She might also be your mother. Take care, Saxon. We live in perilous times.”