How good of you to write to me, Jim. And how considerate of you, well and truly, to ask how I am. It’s been so long since anybody has asked me that. I might say the words out loud now, just to put me in the mindset of their ring.
…there. I said it. Can you hear the uneasy quaver in my voice from all the way over there?
Not one soul from our beloved town, not even my own family, has thought to write. You are the first to extend even the feeblest of niceties and inquire about my well-being. And it means the world to me; for I am left so desperately alone with my thoughts and nobody to share them with. Except, of course, my present company, my patient and burden, F., who I’m sure I will tell you all about in due time. Suffice it to say for now, my sweet, considerate Jim, that F. is no sympathetic interlocutor. In fact, the overall situation here is worsening with each and every rising sun. But I shall have to catch you up in my next letter; I can hear my charge raging in the next room. It’s as if the metal grafts in his bones are attuned like antennae to alert him when he’s being talked about.
Allow me to describe to you, dear Jim, the circumstances that have taken me so far away from our little home village and the possibility of your embrace therein.
Following my exceptional performance during three days and nights in the trauma unit during the waning hours of the most recent eastern cavalry siege, my managing nurse informed me that I was being reassigned. I had until sundown the next day to gather my things and make way to the location she indicated. This was not standard procedure, but, in times such as these when our medical staff is stretched onion-skin thin along the eastern and western fronts, tending to the troops, I did not question my responsibility. I marched homeward, packed my bags, and kissed mother and father goodbye.
I feel I can tell you this with little embarrassment (since we find ourselves separated by so many miles, the distance having unlocked what feels like a creaky door within me), that in those final hours, on my way to the train station, I took the slightest detour to pass the quarry. I knew you would be on shift there. You hammered stone and wheelbarrowed rubble, and I watched, still and silent, from the shade of an oak tree next to the road. No matter how hard I willed it, and repeated the wish in my head, you never turned in my direction.
Watching you work, I suddenly remembered all the time you spent courting my sister, taking her dancing and picnicking, for carriage rides in the fair autumn. I realized that I dreaded being caught and couldn’t bear the idea of our first true conversation being a farewell. I never had the courage to speak to you the few times you visited our home, but when you plucked a daisy from the bouquet you bestowed upon my sister and handed it to me, her knock-kneed sibling sweating over the evening stew, I felt seen for the first time. Alas, I made haste before the warmth of your gaze chanced to locate me in the shadow of the roadside oak.
I made the coast-bound train and followed the directions that my managing nurse handed down to me and disembarked at the final stop. I followed the much-untraveled dirt road that led from the desolate depot and followed it to my destination: a stone tower at the edge of an expansive field of grass, perched atop cliffs overlooking the rocky shoreline. Peeking over the cliff’s edge, I gazed upon the pebble beach and its jagged promontory that would serve as the boundary to my universe on one side. The sea here is uniformly grey and rushes the shore in consistent tides. Riding the far-off horizon, storm clouds roiled into being, not to come into fruition and make landfall for some time.
The narrow path of packed dirt that I’d followed from the train station ended at the tower’s front door. The tower—perhaps at one time meant to be a lighthouse but never crowned with its lamplight—is just large enough to accommodate three rooms, one atop another. A spiral staircase allows passage from the ground floor kitchen up to the separate levels that house my room and my patient’s, then on to a spare cell, empty save for a stool positioned before the window.
The only information I was given about my assignment was the location, detailed directions on how to get there, and counsel to follow my training and continue the extraordinary nursing care I’d come to exhibit in times of great duress. So, Jim, imagine my shock upon discovering that my task was to care for a single wounded man (who, in accordance with medical confidentiality practices, I will refer to only as F.). I have yet to become privy to the exact details of the arrangement by which he has come to occupy this space and been afforded a private caregiver, though I’ve learned that he maintains amicable connections significantly high up the administrative hierarchy in our local medical institution. With his injuries he’s made to be bedridden but throws awful tantrums and fights the progress of his recovery at every step, rendering my job quite arduous.
He’s screaming now, and pulling the cord that rings the bells in my room. It seems I’ll have to cut this letter short.
Jim, take my attention away from this place. I’ve been here too long. Tell me about your days, your family. Give them my love. Paint me a picture of the roads and carriages I miss so, the meadow at the village’s southern limit, the running creek, and the cows grazing in the shade when they can find it. I long to return, and can picture it now… strolling over the daisy-dotted, dew-dried knolls to find you at the back porch of your family’s precious cottage, filling your pipe before rounding the yard to find a chicken for our reunion dinner. A distant vision, yet very clear.
The bells are ringing. I must go. Until next time.
F. is a young man, hardly a day older than you, Jim, and, admittedly, could be considered quite handsome. Of course, the isolation, his querulous tantrums, and the acidic verbal projectiles he hurls my way make it impossible to make a fair assessment. Not to mention the facial lacerations and the bandages obscuring his features.
The plaster cast that encompasses his midriff and three limbs—which are loosely attached to the metal bedframe by a series of harnesses and pulleys—keep him largely immobile, but his tenaciously uncooperative nature persists. He refuses to submit to the state of recovery, and each and every day the sounds of his distress tear me from my chores, meals, and meager resting hours.
Upon climbing the staircase at a sprint to F.’s room, in pursuit of his cries, I am wont to find him prostrate on the floor, sweating profusely, pounding his fist into the floorboards. The intravenous needle is often twisted in his skin if not already broken subdermally, and he’ll struggle as much as his bodily confines allow as I return him to bed. He demands his soup and bread at arbitrary hours and refuses to take his medication lest I coax or deceive him as I would a temperamental toddler or a timid dog.
What little free time I have—when I am not tending to F., filling out my nurse’s log, or tilling the garden for stew ingredients—I spend in the topmost room of the tower, where I look out the window for my replacement, a nurse whose arrival seems less plausible with every passing day. I don’t know when I will be relieved of my duty, and I simply cannot leave F. alone without a soul to care for him. Yet, the empty horizon and the road leading to this singular prison remain barren.
I am sitting in the spare room now, watching where the road meets the horizon. The sea, crashing against the shore behind me, out of view, is a constant reminder that there is only one route to and from the tower by foot.
F. is making a ruckus below, wailing and swinging his cast-stiff limbs. I can hear the clattering metal bed frame and breaking glass. My sigh feels earth-shattering.
Do write, Jim. Your voice in my head is panacea.
Why does F. choose to protract his recovery? I am forced to consider the impossible. That F., in fact, loves the continued suffering and would prefer to remain in a state of suspended recovery. And I, the unfortunate soul whose pre-determined task falls at odds with his predilection for pain. It seems F. has made it his sole purpose, which he cruelly relishes, to make my job as hard as possible.
Yesterday, after a night of only three hours’ sleep due to F.’s incessant nocturnal raging, I unintentionally set the evening meal ablaze. The kitchen filled with smoke and for a brief moment the idea of suffocating seemed more pleasurable than spending another day caring for F. Nonetheless, I flung the windows open to let in the air just as F.’s assistance bells began ringing. I went upstairs to find him removing his casts with a pair of scissors he must have swiped from my medicine bag last time I replaced his IV drip. Wrestling the scissors out of his fingers proved dangerous and resulted in a gash across my right hand. Is the shakiness in my handwriting apparent, Jim?
I must go; F. will be waking any minute. May the promise of your letter and the hope of my relief nurse’s arrival get me through the day.
In his crazier moments, F. thinks I am his guardian angel. I have developed a tough carapace, and on the occasions when I outlast his raging fits, F., reaching his breaking point, devolves into a weeping mess, searching helplessly for a comforting presence. I will sit on the edge of the bed and adjust his casted body so that he may rest his bandaged head on my lap and blubber. His snot runs, I wipe diligently, and he tells me about his mother and sister and uncle in their fine estate up-country and the elegant balls thrown in their honor by the local magistrate and the lineage that has allowed him this exclusive, unprecedentedly solitary and personal medical attention.
Today, during an exceptionally torrential episode, as I flipped him onto his stomach like an overturned snapper turtle and began to lift him back into the bed, he cried out between tears that I didn’t deserve any of this. That I was too good of a soul for this earth and that I tended to my duties with admirable care and diligence. I got him into bed, set his limbs, and dabbed at his tears. Presently, he fell asleep. I returned to my leisure post at the upstairs window, where I watched the horizon and began a letter to you. But alas, my respite was short lived. I had hardly written my salutation when the sound of scraping bedposts snapped me from my reverie and the fantasy of a more peaceful existence.
It’s sunset now, on a day innumerable. I had been tracking the passage of time with the remaining doses of F.’s medications (of which we are in ample supply), though lost count of the weeks once I began doubling his sedatives in an attempt to make him a more docile patient.
A chicken is on the pot and F. will need his medicine any minute now, which will be an ordeal that could occupy me well into the wee morning hours. Another sleepless night, I’m sure. But for you, I wish nothing but the sweetest of dreams, Jim.
The idea of relief ever arriving seems too miraculous to become reality. Every day I look to where the road meets the horizon, hoping to spy an approaching body, but find nothing more than swooping chickadees, fleecy clouds, and a vast field devoid of human presence. My waiting is interrupted only by my patient’s demands. I’ve had to refashion F.’s casts more times than I can count. His wounds are not healing and his temperament persists. He spits when I enter the room. Pouts when I bring his medication. Bats away trays of food and only eats when I spoon the scattered lumps of stew from the floor into his mouth. More than once he’s nipped at my fingers. The rancor of my tormentor knows no bounds.
And I must confess, it seems I’ve misplaced the only totem capable of quelling my discontent: your first (and might I add, though not bitterly, only) letter. Just yesterday, upon retreating to my quarters to read your lovely chicken scratch, I failed to locate the piece of parchment. I tore my own room apart, finding nothing, before it occurred to me that this could be the latest evolution in F.’s tyranny. Amidst my upturned accoutrements, it became abundantly clear that—while I was out back toiling with the clean linen drying on the wire, nearly asleep on my feet—F. had managed to hobble his way out of bed, navigate the spiral stairs down one floor to my room, prop the wooden door open, secure your letter (my only possession of sentimental value, as he would preternaturally know, in his vicious acuity), and climb back up the stairs and into bed before I returned.
It is not without some shame and eyes clear with hindsight that I tell you I left not an inch of F.’s quarters unsearched. I approached my investigation with the same zealous thoroughness with which I approach my healthcare practice. F. raged at my lifting first one edge of his mattress, then the other. I severed the latches on his trunks and rummaged through his identifying papers, military uniform, framed photographs, books, pocket watch, pomade, and undergarments. I stuck the fireplace poker in the gap between his skin and the curved interior walls of plaster cast, probing for hidden parchment. He asked many times what I was looking for, insisting he had nothing of mine. Finally, as he continued to deny any knowledge of the letter, I filled a syringe with isopropyl, harmless in effect, and told F., calmly and confidently, that if he didn’t tell me where my letter was, I would inject the needle into his big toe and plunge into his bloodstream a fiery itch that he could expect to last through the next forty-eight hours. I likened the potential sensation to a million red ants gnawing the insides of his veins. He thrashed and squirmed away from the needle and committed to his position of not having taken any letters. He claimed that he had never left his room and that, in fact, and most beguilingly, no mail had ever been received here. His bed, positioned just so, has a fine view of the road leading to our tower, and he insisted, through inchoate sobs, that not a single letter had ever arrived for either F. or myself. Such was his conviction that I was forced to lower my medical instrument and step aside. Leaving F. to sob himself to sleep, I pondered his depravity in my own quarters. Is it not enough to prolong his own wounds, but to inflict them onto me as well, thus ensuring his perpetual un-welfare? And his claim that I had received no such letter (a lie, as you well know, Jim) only intimates that this sickness has come to poison his ethical rationale as well as his physical well-being.
It’s begun to cross my mind what the truly prudent solution may be. A release from the suffering, both his and my own. I miss my family, our village, the opportunity to truly help those who want to get better. I’ve stopped counting the days. And to be quite frank, dear Jim, your lack of reply has filled me with an uneasiness that can only be known to those who have seen the blossom of a promising romance retract and shrivel on the branch. You mustn’t be ignoring me… you are receiving these letters, Jim? You cannot convince me that F. is correct in his intimation that this is some fantasy concocted in the mind of a good, hardworking woman facing one irascible, uncooperative charge, an unchanging horizon, and rapidly dwindling hours of viable rest. No. Your silence, while discourteous, can only be the cause of some greater scheme… F.’s deviousness or some flaw in the carrier pigeon system.
But, know this: at the first sight of my relief cresting the hill en route to this very tower of isolation, when a promise of life beyond this hellish perpetuum is all but guaranteed, everything will be washed clean, baptized anew, and forgiven. Until then.
This will likely be my final letter to you, Jim. I must tell you something, which, in your vast, embracing compassion, I know you will understand.
I’m writing you on four days without sleep. Any amount of rest I secure is, in the grand scheme, negligible. Last evening was a long episode of struggle. The storm clouds, which for so long remained tethered to the sea’s far-off horizon, reached land last night and brought with them roaring winds and a gust-thrown downpour. The window hatches made an angry death rattle against the iron frames. I forced F. into bed, adjusted his limbs in their harness slings, and coerced him to take his medicine and eat a spoonful of soup, slipping him the maximum amount of sedative medically-advisable, before retreating upstairs. I watched the rainstorm make landfall and felt the weight of my palms without your letter. After some time, on feet not my own, eyelids hardly open, my body perhaps encouraged by the howling winds like a wayward sail, I descended the stairs and entered F.’s quarters. He lay there, belying all malice, pure serenity across his sleeping face, indifferent to the havoc he wrecked upon my soul. It was with an almost dreamlike detachment that I took the extra bed cushion in hand, lowered it over F.’s face, and pressed down with all my weary might. I felt the resistance beneath my knuckles, resonating up to through my bones, but I did not loosen my grip until the fidgeting ceased. I felt the body go slack. The unseen anchor chain around my neck released me into a new freedom. It all passed without a thought. It felt like a trance.
I’ve had enough practice maneuvering F.’s body in and out of his bed that getting him onto the floor, down the stairs, and out the lighthouse’s front door was of little difficulty. The passing storm, the dark of night, and the deepest form of isolation protected me. The moon tugged the tide along, and when I dropped F.’s body over the edge of the cliffs, white cast limbs glimmering briefly in the moonlight, the rush of the oncoming surf masked the sound of his fall.
I’m writing to you, Jim, from the lofty seat of freedom overlooking the horizon, which the sun is just now beginning to crest. My lighthouse has never been taller, nor cozier. The after-storm breeze has given the air a crisp vitality and the birds are singing. You must forgive the lack of discretion in this letter, and the newfound boundless affection for my surroundings. The reason for my frankness being that moments ago, in the warm orange glow of dawn, I have spotted my relief nurse, medical bag in hand, strolling down the dirt road, heading nowhere else but here. Whatever judgement may fall upon me, Jim, I could not move forward to meet my fate without writing you one last time. Stay well, stay merry. I love you.