I suppose people will say it was my fault, that if I'd not gone home that March in 1919, Mathilda, my only sister, would not be dead. But I did go home. The way I saw it, I hadn't any choice.
"March 27, 1919." That's a good place to begin. That's what I wrote in the top right corner of the page. "Dear Mattie." The pen shook as I raised it, splattering ink. "March 27, 1919," I wrote on a fresh sheet. "Dear Mattie."
In the end, I didn't bother to write. I knew I would be welcome. After all, Mattie had been begging me to come home for months. And what could I say? I had no explanation. No explanation but the truth, and I certainly didn't want to tell that.
The truth was that the hospital had asked me to leave. Not permanently, of course.
"Of course, we don't want you to go permanently, Miss Starkey," Dr. Nichols said. It wasn't clear whom he meant by "we," since he and I were the only ones in the office. It made me nervous knowing there were others who had talked about me, perhaps whispering in the hallways, ducking around corners when they saw me coming. They probably gathered in this very office, sipped coffee, shook their heads and tut-tutted me. Who were they?
Dr. Nichols moved some papers around on his desk. He did not look at me. "When this is over . . ." He cleared his throat. "When you're yourself again, then we'll reconsider."
He was referring to my hallucinations, I believe, although it may have been the fainting or even the accidents. He studied the desktop for a moment and then sighed, saying almost kindly,
"You'll feel much better away from this stink, believe me."
There was a stink in the hospital. A literal stink of gangrenous flesh and vomit, of ammonia and burnt oatmeal and camphor, of urine and feces. But a nurse gets used to the smells and the screams, and the sight of the men missing pieces of themselves.
And I was a brilliant nurse. I had the touch; everybody said so. The men worshiped me. Those with faces lifted them toward me when I bent over their beds. Those with arms held them out. I loved being an angel. But I had to give it up.
Dr. Nichols had a point. Somehow, I had lost control. One morning I woke up sure, absolutely positive, that my legs had been sawn from my trunk, and although I quickly realized that I had only been dreaming--my legs were right there, two ridges under the blanket--I couldn't move them, couldn't rise no matter how I tried. My roommate, Eliza Fox, had to pull me out of bed. Another time, I'm ashamed to say, I actually fainted across a soldier's chest while giving him a sponge bath.
Several times I had to run from the wards to vomit. My insides spewed out every morning, into bedpans and janitors' buckets and hastily twisted newspaper cones and the snowdrift behind the hydrangea hedge. Twice I lost the hearing in my left ear, and once I spent four hours sitting in the stairwell, waiting for my sight to return.
Syringes flew out to stab my arms; glass vials shattered in my hands; file drawers pinched the tips of my fingers. I forgot soldiers' names and the purpose of errands. Three days in a row I locked myself out of the room I shared with Eliza. And always I was so tired, so very tired, that I simply could not stay awake, no matter how often I splashed water on my face or how much black coffee I drank. Finally, I surrendered and fashioned myself a nest among the towels in the supply room. I slept there every afternoon from one-thirty to two until the day Ward F ran out of soap, and Frances Patterson was sent to get some.
Altogether, I had to admit they were right--I was beginning to make a better patient than a nurse. My body had got the better of me and could no longer be trusted. To tell the truth, I didn't know myself anymore.
And so I agreed to go home, not to the Milwaukee boarding-house full of unmarried nurses where Eliza and I had carefully divided the freezing, mustard-colored room into her side and my side, but back to the farm where I had grown up, where the snowy hills were white as bleached linen and where my sister rocked her little girl to sleep beside the kitchen stove while she waited for her husband to come back from the war. I knew that, at home where I belonged, I could set myself right again.
Excerpted from Drowning Ruth by Christina Shwarz. Copyright© 2000 by Christina, Schwarz. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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