As everyone gets in their auto or carts to leave, Blum, Hester, and Maddock walk out across the fields toward the creek and I think how good it is to see Isaac acting like a regular man, a man who has friends. Even before his collapse, when he was a functioning physician, I don’t think he had friends. Come to think of it, neither did I, not many anyway, and not close.
From where I stand toward the back of the cemetery, I can look down Spruce Mountain toward the Hope River. We are on the green side, and I see, on the other, blackened forests and fields all the way to the west.
The golden forsythia bush next to the barn rings like a churchbell.
“No one brought any flowers for the graves!” Patience says after everyone is gone and the four of us are taking down the homemade benches and tables. “Let’s go get some. Come on!” She is pulling my hand. “Here,” she says to Daniel taking her baby out of the sling and handing her over. “You take the kids. We have to find flowers!”
It’s almost dusk. I’m dead tired and would just like to lie down, but I do what she says. In the field by the barn we find daisies and mustard and phlox. We pick and pick until we have enough for all the graves.
“Isaac is carving the sign for the cemetery. What do you want it to say?” I ask as we turn back.
Patience doesn’t hesitate. She must have had it all planned.
HOPE MEMORIAL CEMETERY
DEDICATED TO THE HEROES OF
THE HOPE RIVER WILDFIRE OF 1935
“WE ARE ALL STRONGER THAN WE THINK.”
Back at the gravesites, we kneel again and spread out our flowers, a blanket of color to cover the dead, white, yellow, and pink. Patience surprises me when she makes the sign of the cross. “Mrs. Kelly,” she shrugs as if that explains it. “She was Catholic.”
I think about that . . . how little parts of those we love are alive in us, even when the beloved is gone.
“What happens to them?” I ask. “Drake and Beef? The captain and Nate Bowlin? The Hucknells? Are they just flesh and bones to molder under the earth or is there something more?”
“More,” the midwife says firmly.
“You sound so sure.”
“Look around you,” she says pointing down into the valley where the Hope reflects the sunset, a ribbon of red, and I’m crying again, but this time for the joy of it.
Today was my first day back at work and though the sun was shining and I was happy to be returning, the drive there depressed me. On both sides of the road, as I approached White Rock, there was nothing but blackened forests and fields, and then around a bend there was the camp, an island of green that stood like a testimonial to the men who fought to save the trees.
“Boy, am I glad to see you!” Boodean exclaims as I walk into headquarters. Mrs. Ross greets me with a cup of coffee and two new starched nurse uniforms and that gift lifts my spirits some. “The nurse from Virginia treated the lads okay, but wouldn’t let me do a damn thing. Said I wasn’t a real medic.” You can see her words hurt him.
I make a list of supplies we need from Stenger’s Pharmacy and then we get busy with three patients one after another, a case of poison ivy, a boil the size of a half dollar that I let Boodean lance, and finally, just before lunch, a new man who worries me, Joe Morgan, who’d just transferred in from a CCC camp in Pennsylvania.
“I don’t know what’s wrong, ma’am,” the very tall, thin corpsman tells me. “I’m thirsty all the time. I even have to get up at night to drink and I can feel my heart pounding. Not only that, I’m losing weight, no matter how much I put down my gullet.”
I suspect he has diabetes, but when Dr. Blum comes he will decide.
Finally it’s chow time. When Boodean and I enter the mess hall, tears spring to my eyes. These young men, the Forest Army, many from the poorest and most disadvantaged homes, are my knights in shining armor.
Snake, the boy who almost chopped off his own leg, strolls over to our table, with only a slight limp. “The trees finally came,” he tells Boodean. “Morning, Miss Becky. We’re going to start planting this afternoon.”
“Trees?” I ask.
“Yeah, the new super ordered a boxcar of jack pine and some wild grass seed to prevent erosion on the hillsides. It’s one of the missions of the CCC camps, reforestation, and boy do we have a lot of reforestation to do!” You can tell he likes the way the new word sounds.
“Do you want to go with them?” I ask Boodean. “Sounds like fun.”
“I wouldn’t mind.”
In the afternoon clinic, I see some of the corpsmen injured in the fire, per the routine of the substitute nurse, and at the end of the day, Rusty hops in supported on his one foot and two crutches.
“Howdy, Miss Becky. Nice to see you back,” he greets me cheerfully.
“My mother and father in Indiana sent you a note. He hands me an already opened envelope and I pull out a five-and-dime greeting card with a hummingbird on the front. Inside it says simply, “Thank you. Our sun is our hope. You saved him.” Son is spelled wrong, but it doesn’t matter, I know that Rusty is their shining sun and it brings tears to my eyes.
“Aren’t you going home, Rusty? I’m sure you could. They would give you medical discharge. I can fill out the papers if you want.”
“No, I’m happy here. I get three squares a day, medical care, and my ma gets her check. It means a lot to them back in Indianapolis.
“Major Langford, the new camp superintendent, gave me a sit-down job in the woodshop, learning to make furniture. I can do it all on a low bench so I don’t have to stand, and he’s looking for someone in Pittsburgh who can make me an artificial foot. My only problem is the itch.”
Here I raise my eyebrows. Another case of the crotch itch?
“Where exactly does it itch?” I ask, thinking this will be awkward if I have to examine his privates with Boodean off planting trees.
The young man looks confused. “My foot, of course. My left foot. The one the doc took off!”
“Oh.” I start to giggle and I can’t stop. “It’s called phantom pain when a limb is removed, but I guess you have phantom itch!” Now Rusty is laughing too.
“Go ask the cook for ice to put on your stump the next time you get the itch and dunk your stump in cold water to numb the nerves.” With my home remedies I’m getting more like the midwife every day.
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