05/29/2013 06:36 am ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

Bed Five

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Eastern France, Thursday, Sept. 12, 1918

Six soldiers died this morning. No preventing it. I provided comfort as best I could. It was so little to offer them.

Vera looked down at the young soldier in bed one, his head and chest wrapped in bandages, blood seeping through the white gauze. She stared at the pattern it made, almost like a red butterfly. He'd be the seventh to die today. She shut her eyes tight to block out what was happening around her.

"Nurse, please, can you write to my Wilma?" A young private in bed two sat up, white-clothed stubs where his hands should have been.

Vera swallowed hard. She dreaded writing one more letter from another mangled boy, pretending everything was fine. She didn't even have time for this small act of kindness. "I'm sorry. I have to get the surgeon to look at this man."

She wanted to get as far away from the devastation as she could, but she felt a bony hand grip her arm. "Water. Please." This from a sergeant in bed six, whose left leg had been so badly shredded the surgeon removed it right away. But not soon enough. The sickly smell of gangrene assaulted her nostrils as she poured water into a tin cup.

Breathing through her mouth to spare herself the stench of rotting flesh, she helped him sit up. His body felt like it'd been in the fires of Hell. She knew he wouldn't make it. She laid him back down but again felt his clawlike hand on her wrist. The soldier's breath rattled in his throat, a noise all too familiar to Vera. As he took his final breath, his bowels and bladder let loose. Another man gone, left to lie in his own excrement.

The combined odors made Vera swallow hard. Willing the contents of her stomach to return to their rightful place, she called an orderly to remove the body.

"Begging your pardon, ma'am, but he ain't dead. Not yet anyways."

She stared down at the sergeant. Sure enough, his chest moved up and down as he took one labored breath after another. His pulse was weak and irregular. She rubbed her face. How could she claim a man dead before he was? He'd die soon enough. Like so many before him.

She bit the back of her hand until it hurt. Better than crying for herself, for her missing brother, for the endless line of dead and dying soldiers.

Once she regained her composure, she remembered the boy in bed one. Dr. Schmidt examined the soldier and with Vera's help, applied fresh bandages. He motioned Vera to follow as he walked away. "I doubt he'll last through the night. We've done all we can."

When a double amputee in bed four called out to her, Vera felt so overwhelmed she wanted to pretend not to hear him. Instead she stepped over to attend to his needs.

He leaned toward her. "I don't mean to make trouble, but can I be moved to a different bed?" He tilted his head to the right. "That Hun gives me the willies."

Vera understood, since she felt the same way about the unarmed German soldier who'd been found wandering on the battlefield. As soon as they captured him, he fell into unconsciousness and had yet to wake from it. They had no choice but to leave him in bed five until he was well enough to move to a POW camp.

"I'll see what I can do. For now, though, get some rest." She wished for the same. Instead, she spent more hours tending wounds, changing bandages, even cleaning up a soldier who'd come in holding his intestines and screaming a woman's name.

Wiping her forehead, she noticed a volunteer who sat by the soldier who had no hands. Vera supposed the woman had agreed to write his letter. She prayed his girl would welcome him back, injuries and all.

Vera shook off the chill she attributed to the night air and exhaustion. After removing her apron, coated with blood, vomit, and worse she reported off to the nurse next on duty. She dragged herself to her quarters. She fell into a dreamless sleep, but awoke a short time later, a heavy feeling in her chest.

She tried to take a deep breath, but could only manage a few shallow puffs. She told herself it could only be nerves and exhaustion. The episode passed, but sadness and anger, her two companions since she received her transfer to this medical unit, didn't budge.

A woman's voice broke through her thoughts. "Vera, you're needed in the O.R."

Her shoulders drooped and her legs wobbled when she stood up. As if in a nightmare, she donned the surgical gown and prepared the chloroform. She bit her chapped lip when she saw the screaming man on the table, blood pouring from a groin wound. Against all her instincts to run away, she did what was needed before returning to her cot, tears streaming down her face. She rubbed her eyes until the skin around them felt raw. Faces blurred before her mind's eye of the men she had tended. Soldier after soldier. The few returning to battle, most going home crippled in body or mind, sometimes both. It didn't end.

Suddenly, it struck her that the comatose German embodied all the losses she had witnessed. She hurried from her quarters to bed five. Her mouth twisted and she growled, "How many have you killed?" Then ripped the blanket off of him and shrieked, "Murderer."

His eyes popped open and Vera saw orbs so black and desolate she caught her breath and stepped backwards. Right into Dr. Schmidt, who put his hands on her shoulders.

Vera shrugged them off. "He's awake. I need to talk to him."

But when the surgeon checked, all signs indicated the Hun remained comatose. "Nurse, get some sleep. We can't afford to have our medical people going around the bend."

Vera's mind protested but she silenced it. "Yes, Sir." She returned to her quarters where she lay on her cot, expecting to stay awake. But sleep came quickly.

Eastern France, Friday, Sept. 13, 1918

I must see the German again. Did he really wake up or is it my exhausted mind tricking me?

Vera tiptoed into the makeshift hospital, waiting until her eyes adjusted to the diminished light. Glancing from side to side to make sure she wouldn't run into any medical personnel, she made her way to the German.

She knelt down and whispered, "I know you're awake." His eyelids fluttered. His voice creaked like an opening door warped from the heat. He spoke without a German accent. "What do you want?"

She balled her fists and answered. "I want you and all the other bloodthirsty curs wearing the Kaiser's uniform dead."

He opened his eyes wide but didn't look at her. "Eventually they all die and you'll have your wish. But not now. Go away. I need to rest." He closed his eyes and said no more.

Vera heard footsteps and she sprang up. She didn't want to get into trouble for harassing a patient, even one able to fool everyone into believing he was unconscious. She slipped back to her quarters to decide how to expose the man. He belonged in a prisoner-of-war camp, not here.

Eastern France, Saturday, Sept. 14, 1918

The wounded keep coming. Will it never end? Praise the Lord, we didn't lose a one, but their groans are like arrows to my heart.

The next morning a new round of wounded arrived, crowding the unit beyond capacity. Vera and the rest of the medical staff marveled that despite many serious injuries they didn't lose one man. A number were in critical condition, though, and required more intensive care than they could provide. Some who could be moved were evacuated to the Army hospital further back from enemy lines.

But still with no orders from Command, the German stayed and to everyone except Vera, he remained in a vegetative state. Even as Vera tended to the men around him, she kept an eye and she reported off, she waited for the time she could sneak back.

Once again she crept to his bed. "You're not going to get away with this. You'll be sent off to a POW camp."

The Hun's eyes again opened. "Threats don't frighten me. You have no idea what I am." He closed his eyes and no amount of prodding could make him open them again.

"What the hell are you doing?" The doctor on shift whispered loudly.

"I...I believe he's awake, Sir."

The doctor put his face close to hers. "I heard about you attacking this guy."

"Sir, I never--"

"Save it. He's the enemy, but he's still human, and we need to provide care." He murmured, "Even if we shoot him later. Now get back to your quarters. Don't come back until your regular shift."

Vera returned to her quarters and just before sleep overtook her, she decided on a plan.

Eastern France, Sunday, Sept.15, 1918

Again another day with no casualties. Morphine supplies are running low as these poor men struggle with the insistent pain. I hardly remembered this is the Sabbath, since a day doesn't pass I don't pray for the Lord to have mercy on these men.

As she cleaned the wound on the sergeant in bed six, he groaned and cried so sorrowfully she prayed for his death. She wiped the sweat from her forehead as a runaway tear ran down her cheek.

Finally finished with the sergeant, she took the basin full of bloody water, crossed in front of bed five and purposely spilled it on the German's face. To her dismay, he remained perfectly still and she was forced to clean him up. While doing so, he licked the crimson liquid off his lips. Repulsed, she whispered, "What kind of monster are you?"

No reply came. She spent the rest of her shift channeling her anger and frustration for all the wounded men into exposing the German.

When her shift was nearly over, they brought in a boy no more than sixteen, still too young to shave. He cupped his hand over a gaping hole where his right eye had been. As the boy pleaded for his momma, Vera rocked him back and forth, cooed to him, and waited for the morphine to kick in. She felt as if the sorrows of every mother who'd lost a son in battle rested on her heart. She couldn't stop her tears.

The boy finally relaxed and as the surgeon examined him, another nurse came from behind Vera. "Your shift is over. Get something to eat and then sleep." Vera slipped her arms from under the boy. As she was leaving the other nurse touched her hand. "You have to stop caring so much. It'll tear you apart, if it hasn't already."

Vera nodded, too tired to argue. She couldn't eat but sleep beckoned like a full henhouse to a starving fox. She awoke in a sweat with her jaw aching, but she ignored the pain and threw cold water on her face to wake up fully.

Once more, she stood by bed five, looking down at the German soldier. "You haven't told me who you are."

His eyes opened and he turned his head toward her. "I am the one all men fear."

She snorted softly. "You're nothing but a blood-sucking dog feeding on his enemies." She wanted to spit on him. "You'll be less than nothing in the POW camp."

His face bore no emotion as he whispered, "Death."

She cocked her head. "What about death?"

"You asked me who I am. I am Death." He turned his head and stared at the ceiling. "I believed the carnage I saw when North and South fought each other would never be repeated. But Man continues to create new ways, like mustard gas, to kill. The stupidity of humans has exhausted me. "

Vera leaned over and grabbed him by the neck of his hospital gown. "Don't insult my intelligence. You're as human as me."

He exhaled. "If you believe that, try to kill me. Put the pillow over my face and snuff out my breath. I won't struggle."

Such was her anger she yanked the pillow from under his head and pressed it against his face so hard the muscles in her arms quivered. When his chest ceased moving she panicked, threw the pillow on the floor, and checked his pulse. Absent. She put her ear to his lips but could feel no breaths. Her heart stopped. "My God, what have I done?"

"You did as I asked." The German said.

"That was a trick." She stood up straight.

"No trick at all. Being Death, I can mimic it easily."

She squinted. "Why are you here? Isn't there enough killing outside? Or are you here for the easy pickings, these men?"

His sigh sounded as hollow as air rushing through a tunnel. "I needed a rest. What better place to do so than here?"

She opened her mouth to challenge what he'd told her, but footsteps coming closer cut her short. "We'll talk again." She promised him.

She couldn't rest after that and paced back and forth in her claustrophobic quarters. How could he be Death? She whispered to herself, "Death isn't a thing. It's a state of no longer being alive. And people die all the time." She thought about the soldiers in her ward, those who'd died and those still living a nightmare of pain. She sucked in a breath and felt dizzy as she recalled since the German arrived, no one had died. Her knees felt like they'd give out and she collapsed onto her cot.

Eastern France, September 16, 1918

I must visit him again tonight. I have so much to ask him, although I'm frightened of his answers.

As soon as she reached bed five, the German opened his eyes. "I've answered your question. What do you want now?"

Vera felt like tiny rockets were exploding in her head. "When will you truly wake up again?"

He didn't respond and a jumble of words continued out of her. "I mean, when will you do what...what it is you do?"

An anguished cry came from a soldier across the room and the German answered. "I've lost the desire to claim lives. I'll remain here until I'm removed by guards."

Despite the warm room, Vera felt a chill and she crossed her arms over her chest. "How can death stop? People need to die when it's their time, don't they?"

The German looked at her. "I'm finished."

A guttural moan came from the sergeant with the gangrenous leg, pulling Vera's attention away for a moment. Then she knelt down next to the German. "But what about the men here? Like that sergeant in bed four. He should have died the day they brought you in."

Death shook his head slowly. "I've lost my appetite for it."

She clasped his cold hand in her warm ones. "So these men are forced to continue their suffering? Isn't that a worse fate than a merciful death?"

He withdrew his hand. "Your job is to save lives, not bargain for them to end."

She gripped the side of the bed. "Yes, but not when suffering is all they have left."

He closed his eyes. "Leave me. I'm tired of this talk."

"No, I won't go. You must do what you're meant to do."

"I'm afraid you can't persuade me. Unless..."

"Unless what?" A sliver of light in the darkness.

"You come with me."

She stood up. "What do you want with me?"

"Despite how it bereaves you, you remain sympathetic. Your kindness to them never waivers."

"I do my duty to ease their suffering."

His voice sharpened. "You asked for mercy for them. I can grant it."

It all came together in her mind. By giving up her life, Death's faith would be restored in Man. He'd collect the sergeant and the others. As the realization took hold, Vera felt the room spin and her legs weaken.

A cry from the soldier who'd lost half his intestines pulled her thoughts back. She took a deep breath and moved to his side. He was sweating profusely, his pulse and breaths rapid. It was obvious his pain was getting worse and now he had a fever. She placed a cool compress on his forehead and talked softly to him.

But even as she ministered to this soldier, Death's proposition ran through her mind. Am I willing to sacrifice myself for these men? Haven't I already done so?

Her body ached with every movement and her mind felt like it had been shattered into multiple pieces. Then put back together, but in such a way that any thoughts brought sharp, piercing pain.

She swallowed a sob and closed her eyes as she thought about what to do. Memories of her first days at the front mingled with those of her family as she made her decision.

She stood again at the German's bedside. "I'll go with you." She surprised herself at the steadiness of her voice.

He stuck out his hand. "It must be quick. An orderly is making his way over to us."

Trembling, she delicately placed her hand in his. "I'm ready." A dull pain traveled down her body.

"Bed five. Emergency." The orderly yelled out. The doctor and the other nurse on duty hurried over to find Vera's dead body in bed five. Despite a thorough search, no one could find the German soldier.

It was also noted that same morning, the sergeant in bed four, the soldier with the abdominal wound, the young man in bed one and five others all passed away, as if they had decided beforehand to watch over Vera, as she'd done with them in life.