War and its consequences, not only does it take lives, its takes limbs, minds, and the will to carry on. Yet, it also gives some strength they never knew they possessed. It is the strength of the gods, the stamina of the brave, the courage of the undaunted, and the determination of the strong to carry on where others would fail.
Lucius Krzelewski is a Polish medical student. He came from a wealthy family, a quiet introspective young man, a stutterer, a man unsure of where he was going until he found the desire within to become a surgeon. Lucius is unprepared, never having placed a scalpel into his hand, when the winds of war blow mightily in his direction. He is assigned to a remote hospital nestled in the Carpathian Mountains and there he meets an indomitable crew, few in number, to tend the sick, the wounded, and the dying. His aid is a nun, Sister Margarete, and when Lucius arrives at the hospital, she is the one who will train him, who will guide him, who will be the one he falls in love with.
The hospital, its environment is one of a nightmare scenario. Short staffed, with limited ways to allay suffering, it is a place where rats, lice, and disease run rampant. The way to teat limbs that are wounded is often to lob them off leaving the men if they should survive without the ability to function as once they had. It is the place where one’s mind is eaten away from thoughts sights and occurrences that create mental illnesses that defy what is known and which attracts Lucius to discover the why of things, the PTSD happenings before that label was used to what soldiers experienced.
It is a sad emotional story, one that over the years and the wars has been told many times. It is a place where death waits at the doorway, where hope seems to have taken a hiatus, where people are pushed to the limit of themselves, and yet come back each and every hour to save lives, to offer solace, to allow the dignity of death to roam. It’s a story of savagery, of the need for some to push these men into service even after they had lost so much. It is the story of how many lose their humanity, lose their ability to see suffering, and only see a body holding a rifle.
There were quite a few lapses in the story however, that, I felt, needed further explanation. It was not clear why Margarete did assume the role of a nun, as well as the inclusion of Lucius’s marriage. The ending was a bit abrupt, and after all that searching for Margarete, Lucius just left and simply bid her farewell. I think I was looking for a sort of Casablanca ending. It did seem we needed more of their interaction at the end. I would have also wanted the shell shock or as we now call it PTSD better explored as an offshoot of the theme.
However, this story was told with an eye to the impossible job that people do when called to action, we see what is the best in people like Lucius and Margarete. They are there always to bring the human into the inhumane. They fall in love not only with what they do, but also with one another. They too, become two spirits lost in the tempest of war, searching to bring meaning to carnage, to find love in the ruins of the flurry of war.
and here’s the author:
Daniel Mason is the author of The Piano Tuner (2002), A Far Country (2007), and The Winter Soldier (2018). His writing has been translated into 28 languages, adapted for opera and stage and shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Northern California Book Award. His short stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s, Zoetrope: All Story and Lapham’s Quarterly, and have been awarded a Pushcart Prize, and a National Magazine Award. in 2014, he was a recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. A Clinical Assistant Professor in the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry, his research interests include the subjective experience of mental illness and the influence of literature, history, and culture on the practice of medicine.