by Mary Borden
door at the end of the baraque kept opening and shutting to let in the
stretcher bearers. As soon as it opened a crack the wind scurried in and
came hopping toward me across the bodies of the men that covered the
floor, nosing under the blankets, lifting the flaps of heavy coats, and
burrowing among the loose heaps of clothing and soiled bandages. Then
the grizzled head of a stretcher bearer would appear, butting its way
in, and he would emerge out of the black storm into the bright fog that
seemed to fill the place, dragging the stretcher after him, and then the
old one at the other end of the load would follow, and they would come
slowly down the centre of the hut looking for a clear place on the
The men were laid out in three rows on either side of the central alley way. It was a
hut, and there were about sixty stretchers in each row. There was space
between the heads of one row and the feet of another row, but no space
to pass between the stretchers in the same row; they touched. The old
territorials who worked with me passed up and down between the heads and
feet. I had a squad of thirty of these old orderlies and two sergeants
and two priests, who were expert dressers. Wooden screens screened off
the end of the hut opposite the entrance. Behind these were the two
dressing tables where the priests dressed the wounds of the new arrivals
and got them ready for the surgeons, after the old men had undressed
them and washed their feet. In one corner was my kitchen where I kept
all my syringes and hypodermic needles and stimulants.
was just before midnight when the stretcher bearers brought in the
blind man, and there was no space on the floor anywhere; so they stood
waiting, not knowing what to do with him.
said from the floor in the second row: "Just a minute, old ones. You
can put him here in a minute." So they waited with the blind man
suspended in the bright, hot, misty air between them, like a pair of old
horses in shafts with their heads down, while the little boy who had
been crying for his mother died with his head on my breast. Perhaps he
thought the arms holding him when he jerked back and died belonged to
some woman I had never seen, some woman waiting somewhere for news of
him in some village, somewhere in France. How many women, I wondered,
were waiting out there in the distance for news of these men who were
lying on the floor? But I stopped thinking about this the minute the boy
was dead. It didn't do to think. I didn't as a rule, but the boy's very
young voice had startled me. It had come through to me as a real voice
will sound sometimes through a dream, almost waking you, but now it had
stopped, and the dream was thick round me again, and I laid him down,
covered his face with the brown blanket and called two other old ones.
this one in the corridor to make more room here," I said; and I saw
them lift him up. When they had taken him away, the stretcher bearers
who had been waiting
the blind one and put him down in the cleared space. They had to come
round to the end of the front row and down between the row of feet and
row of heads; they had to be very careful where they stepped; they had
to lower the stretcher cautiously so as not to jostle the men on either
side (there was just room), but these paid no attention. None of the men
lying packed together on the floor noticed each other in this curious
had watched this out of the corner of my eye, busy with something that
was not very like a man. The limbs seemed to be held together only by
the strong stuff of the uniform. The head was unrecognisable. It was a
monstrous thing, and a dreadful rattling sound came from it. I looked up
and saw the chief surgeon standing over me. I don't know how he got
there. His small shrunken face was wet and white; his eyes were
brilliant and feverish; his incredible hands that saved so many men so
exquisitely, so quickly, were in the pockets of his white coat.
him morphine," he said, "a double dose. As much as you like." He pulled
a cigarette out of his pocket. "In cases like this, if I am not about,
give morphine; enough, you understand." Then he vanished like a ghost.
He went back to his operating room, a small white figure with round
shoulders, a magician, who performed miracles with knives. He went away
through the dream.
gave the morphine, then crawled over and looked at the blind man's
ticket. I did not know, of course, that he was blind until I read his
ticket. A large round white helmet covered the top half of his head and
face; only his nostrils and mouth and chin were uncovered. The surgeon
in the dressing station behind the trenches had written on his ticket,
"Shot through the eyes. Blind."
he know? I asked myself. No, he couldn't know yet. He would still be
wondering, waiting, hoping, down there in that deep, dark silence of
his, in his own dark personal world. He didn't know he was blind; no one
would have told him. I felt his pulse. It was strong and steady. He was
a long, thin man, but his body was not very cold and the pale lower
half of his clear-cut face was not very pale. There was something
him. In his case there was no hurry, no necessity to rush him through
to the operating room. There was plenty of time. He would always be
One of the orderlies was going up and down with hot tea in a bucket. I beckoned to him.
said to the blind one: "Here is a drink." He didn't hear me, so I said
it more loudly against the bandage, and helped him lift his head, and
held the tin cup to his mouth below the thick edge of the bandage. I did
not think then of what was hidden under the bandage. I think of it now.
Another head case across the hut had thrown off his blanket and risen
from his stretcher. He was standing stark naked except for his head
bandage, in the middle of the hut, and was haranguing the crowd in a
loud voice with the gestures of a political orator. But the crowd, lying
on the floor, paid no attention to him. They did not notice him. I
called to Gustave and Pierre to go to him.
blind man said to me: "Thank you, sister, you are very kind. That is
good. I thank you." He had a beautiful, voice. I noticed the great
courtesy of his speech. But they were all courteous. Their courtesy when
they died, their reluctance to cause me any trouble by dying or
suffering, was one of the things it didn't do to think about.
I left him, and presently forgot that he was there waiting in the
second row of stretchers on the left side of the long crowded floor.
and Pierre had got the naked orator back on to his stretcher and were
wrapping him up again in his blankets. I let them deal with him and went
back to my kitchen at the other end of the hut, where my syringes and
hypodermic needles were boiling in saucepans. I had received by post
that same morning a dozen beautiful new platinum needles. I was very
pleased with them. I said to one of the dressers as I fixed a needle on
my syringe and held it up, squirting the liquid through it; "Look. I've
some lovely new needles." He said: "Come and help me a moment. Just cut
this bandage, please." I went over to his dressing-table. He darted off
to a voice that was shrieking somewhere. There was a man stretched on
the table. His brain came off in my hands when I lifted the bandage from
When the dresser came back I said: "His brain came off on the bandage."
"Where have you put it?"
"I put it in the pail under the table."
"It's only one half of his brain," he said, looking into the man's skull. "The rest is here."
I left him to finish the dressing and went about my own business. I had much to do.
was my business to sort out the wounded as they were brought in from
the ambulances and to keep them from dying before they got to the
operating rooms: it was my business to sort out the nearly dying from
the dying. I was there to sort them out and tell how fast life was
ebbing in them. Life was leaking away from all of them; but with some
there was no hurry, with others it was a case of minutes. It was my
business to create a counter-wave of life, to create the flow against
the ebb. It was like a tug of war with the tide. The ebb of life was
cold. When life was ebbing the man was cold; when it began to flow back,
he grew warm. It was all, you see, like a dream. The dying men on the
floor were drowned men cast up on the beach, and there was the ebb of
life pouring away over them, sucking them away, an invisible tide; and
my old orderlies, like old sea-salts out of a lifeboat, were working to
save them. I had to watch, to see if they were slipping, being dragged
away. If a man were slipping quickly, being sucked down rapidly, I sent
runners to the operating rooms. There were six operating rooms on either
side of my hut. Medical students in white coats hurried back and forth
along the covered corridors between us. It was my business to know which
of the wounded could wait and which could not. I had to decide for
myself. There was no one to tell me. If I made any mistakes, some would
die on their stretchers on the floor under my eyes who need not have
died. I didn't worry. I didn't think. I was too busy, too absorbed in
what I was doing. I had to judge from what was written on their tickets
and from the way they looked and the way they felt to my hand. My hand
could tell of itself one kind of cold from another. They were all
half-frozen when they arrived, but the chill of their icy flesh wasn't
the same as the cold inside them when life was almost
ebbed away. My hands could instantly tell the difference between the
cold of the harsh bitter night and the stealthy cold of death. Then
there was another thing, a small fluttering thing. I didn't think about
it or count it. My fingers felt it. I was in a dream, led this way and
that by my cute eyes and hands that did many things, and seemed to know
what to do.
there was no time to read the ticket or touch the pulse. The door kept
opening and shutting to let in the stretcherbearers whatever I was
doing. I could not watch when I was giving piqures; but, standing by my
table filling a syringe, I could look down over the rough forms that
covered the floor and pick out at a distance this one and that one. I
had been doing this for two years, and had learned to read the signs. I
could tell from the way they twitched, from the peculiar shade of a
pallid face, from the look of tight pinched-in nostrils, and in other
ways which I could not have explained, that this or that one was
slipping over the edge of the beach of life. Then I would go quickly
with my long saline needles, or short thick camphor oil needles, and
send one of the old ones hurrying along the corridor to the operating
rooms. But sometimes there was no need to hurry; sometimes I was too
late; with some there was no longer any question of the ebb and flow of
life and death; there was nothing to do.
hospital throbbed and hummed that night like a dynamo. The operating
rooms were ablaze; twelve surgical équipes were at work; boilers steamed
and whistled; nurses hurried in and out of the sterilizing rooms
carrying big shining metal boxes and enamelled trays; feet were running,
slower feet. shuffling. The hospital was going full steam ahead. I had a
sense of great power, exhilaration and excitement. A loud wind was
howling. It was throwing itself like a pack of wolves against the flimsy
wooden walls, and the guns were growling. Their voices were dying away.
I thought of them as a pack of beaten dogs, slinking away across the
dark waste where the dead were lying and the wounded who had not yet
been picked up, their only cover the windy blanket of the bitter
I was happy. It seemed to me that the crazy crowded bright hot shelter
was a beautiful place. I thought, "This is the second battlefield. The
battle now is going on over the helpless bodies of these men. It is we
who are doing the fighting now, with their real enemies." And I thought
of the chief surgeon, the wizard working like lightning through the
night, and all the others wielding their flashing knives against the
invisible enemy. The wounded had begun to arrive at noon. It was now
past midnight, and the door kept opening and shutting to let in the
stretcher-bearers, and the ambulances kept lurching in at the gate.
Lanterns were moving through the windy dark from shed to shed. The
nurses were out there in the scattered huts, putting the men to bed when
they came over the dark ground, asleep, from the operating rooms. They
would wake up in clean warm beds---those who did wake up.
will send you the dying, the desperate, the moribund," the
Inspector-General had said. "You must expect a thirty per cent.
mortality." So we had got ready for it; we had organised to dispute that
We had built brick ovens, four of them, down the centre of the
hut, and on top of these, galvanised iron cauldrons of boiling water
were steaming. We had driven nails all the way down the wooden posts
that held up the roof and festooned the posts with red rubber hot-water
bottles. In the corner near to my kitchen we had partitioned off a
cubicle, where we built a light bed, a rough wooden frame lined with
electric light bulbs, where a man could be cooked back to life again. My
own kitchen was an arrangement of shelves for saucepans and syringes
and needles of different sizes, and cardboard boxes full of ampoules of
camphor oil and strychnine and caffeine and morphine, and large ampoules
of sterilized salt and water, and dozens of beautiful sharp shining
needles were always on the boil.
wasn't much to look at, this reception hut. It was about as attractive
as a goods yard in a railway station, but we were very proud of it, my
old ones and I. We had got it ready, and it was good enough for us. We
could revive the cold dead there; snatch back the men who were slipping
over the edge; hoist them out
the dark abyss into life again. And because our mortality at the end of
three months was only nineteen per cent., not thirty, well it was the
most beautiful place in the world to me and my old grizzled Pépères,
Gaston and Pierre and Leroux and the others were to me like shining
archangels. But I didn't think about this. I think of it now. I only
knew it then, and was happy. Yes, I was happy there.
back, I do not understand that woman---myself---standing in that
confused goods yard filled with bundles of broken human flesh. The place
by one o'clock in the morning was a shambles. The air was thick with
steaming sweat, with the effluvia of mud, dirt, blood. The men lay in
their stiff uniforms that were caked with mud and dried blood, their
great boots on their feet; stained bandages showing where a trouser leg
or a sleeve had been cut away. Their faces gleamed faintly, with a faint
phosphorescence. Some who could not breathe lying down were propped up
on their stretchers against the wall, but most were prone on their
backs, staring at the steep iron roof.
old orderlies moved from one stretcher to another, carefully, among the
piles of clothing, boots and blood-soaked bandages---careful not to
step on a hand or a sprawling twisted foot. They carried zinc pails of
hot water and slabs of yellow soap and scrubbing brushes. They gathered
up the heaps of clothing, and made little bundles of the small things
out of pockets, or knelt humbly, washing the big yellow stinking feet
that protruded from under the brown blankets. It was the business of
these old ones to undress the wounded, wash them, wrap them in blankets,
and put hot-water bottles at their feet and sides. It was a difficult
business peeling the stiff uniform from a man whose hip or shoulder was
fractured, but the old ones were careful. Their big peasant hands were
gentle---very, very gentle and careful. They handled the wounded men as
if they were children. Now, looking back, I see their rough powerful
visages, their shaggy eye-brows, their big clumsy, gentle hands. I see
them go down on their stiff knees; I hear their shuffling feet and their
soft gruff voices answering the voices of the wounded, who are calling
to them for drinks, or to God for mercy.
old ones had orders from the commandant not to cut the good cloth of
the uniforms if they could help it, but they had orders from me not to
hurt the men, and they obeyed me. They slit up the heavy trousers and
slashed across the stiff tunics with long scissors, and pulled very
slowly, very carefully at the heavy boots, and the wounded men did not
groan or cry out very much. They were mostly very quiet. When they did
cry out they usually apologised for the annoyance of their agony. Only
now and then a wind of pain would sweep over the floor, tossing the legs
and arms, then subside again.
think that woman, myself, must have been in a trance, or under some
horrid spell. Her feet are lumps of fire, her face is clammy, her apron
is splashed with blood; but she moves ceaselessly about with bright
burning eyes and handles the dreadful wreckage of men as if in a dream.
She does not seem to notice the wounds or the blood. Her eyes seem to be
watching something that comes and goes and darts in and out among the
prone bodies. Her eyes and her hands and her ears are alert, intent on
the unseen thing that scurries and hides and jumps out of the corner on
to the face of a man when she's not looking. But quick, something makes
her turn. Quick, she is over there, on her knees fighting the thing off,
driving it away, and now it's got another victim. It's like a dreadful
game of hide and seek among the wounded. All her faculties are intent on
it. The other things that are going on, she deals with automatically.
There is a constant coming and going. Medical students run in and out.
"What have you got ready?"
got three knees, two spines, five abdomens, twelve heads. Here's a lung
case--haemorrhage. He can't wait." She is binding the man's chest; she
doesn't look up.
"Send him along."
! Gaston ! Call the stretcherbearers to take the lung to Monsieur
D-----." She fastens the tight bandage, tucks the blanket quickly round
the thin shoulders. The old men lift him. She hurries back to her
saucepans to get a new needle.
A surgeon appears.
"Where's that knee of mine? I left it in the
saucepan on the window ledge. I had boiled it up for an experiment."
"One of the orderlies must have taken it," she says, putting her old needle on to boil.
"Good God! Did he mistake it?"
"Jean, did you take a saucepan you found on the windowsill?"
"Yes, sister, I took it. I thought it was for the casse croûte; it looked like a ragout of mouton. I have it here."
"Well, it was lucky he didn't eat it. It was a knee I had cut out, you know."
is time for the old ones' "casse croûte." It is after one o'clock. At
one o'clock the orderlies have cups of coffee and chunks of bread and
meat. They eat their supper gathered round the stoves where the iron
cauldrons are boiling. The surgeons and the sisters attached to the
operating rooms are drinking coffee too in the sterilizing rooms. I do
not want any supper. I am not hungry. I am not tired. I am busy. My eyes
are busy and my fingers. I am conscious of nothing about myself but my
eyes, hands and feet. My feet are a nuisance, they are, swollen, hurting
lumps, but my fingers are perfectly satisfactory. They are expert in
the handling of frail glass ampoules and syringes and needles. I go from
one man to another jabbing the sharp needles into their sides, rubbing
their skins with iodine, and each time I pick my way back across their
bodies to fetch a fresh needle I scan the surface of the floor where the
men are spread like a carpet, for signs, for my special secret signals
I'll catch you out again." Quick, to that one. That jerking! That
sudden livid hue spreading over his form. "Quick, Emile! Pierre !" I
have lifted the blanket. The blood is pouring out on the floor under the
stretcher. "Get the tourniquet. Hold his leg up. Now then,
tight-tighter. Now call the stretcher bearers."
near is having a fit. Is it epilepsy? I don't know. His mouth is
frothy. His eyes are rolling. He tries to fling himself on the floor. He
falls with a thud across his neighbour, who does not notice. The man
just beyond propped up against the wall, watches as if from a great
distance. He has a gentle patient face; this spectacle does not concern
door keeps opening and shutting to let in the stretcher-bearers. The
wounded are carried in at the end door and are carried out to the
operating rooms at either side. The sergeant is counting the treasures
out of a dead man's pockets. He is tying his little things, his letters
and briquet, etc., up in a handkerchief. Some of the old ones are
munching their bread and meat in the centre of the hut under the
electric light. The others are busy with their pails and scissors. They
shuffle about, kneeling, scrubbing, filling hotwater bottles. I see it
all through a mist. It is misty but eternal. It is a scene in eternity,
in some strange dream-hell where I am glad to be employed, where I
belong, where I am happy. How crowded together we are here. How close we
are in this nightmare. The wounded are packed into this place like
sardines, and we are so close to them, my old ones and I. I've never
been so close before to human beings. We are locked together, the old
ones and I, and the wounded men; we are bound together. We all feel it.
We all know it. The same thing is throbbing in us, the single thing, the
one life. We are one body, suffering and bleeding. It is a kind of
bliss to me to feel this. I am a little delirious, but my head is cool
enough, it seems to me.
not that one. He can wait. Take the next one to Monsieur D-----, and
this one to Monsieur Guy, and this one to Monsieur Robert. We will put
this one on the electric light bed; he has no pulse. More hot-water
bottles here, Gaston.
"Do you feel cold, mon vieux?"
"Yes, I think so, but pray do not trouble."
go with him into the little cubicle, turn on the light bulbs, leave him
to cook there; and as I come out again to face the strange heaving
dream, I suddenly hear a voice calling me, a new far-away hollow voice.
"Sister! My sister! Where are you?"
am startled. It sounds so far away, so hollow and so sweet. It sounds
like a bell high up in the mountains. I do not know where it comes from.
I look down over the rows of men lying on their backs, one close to the
other, packed together on the floor, and I cannot tell where the voice
comes from. Then I hear it again.
"Sister! Oh, my sister, where are you?"
lost voice. The voice of a lost man, wandering in the mountains, in the
night. It is the blind man calling. I had forgotten him. I had
forgotten that he was there. He could wait. The others could not wait.
So I had left him and forgotten him.
in his voice made me run, made my heart miss a beat. I ran down the
centre alley way, round and up again, between the two rows, quickly,
carefully stepping across to him over the stretchers that separated us.
He was in the second row. I could just squeeze through to him.
"I am coming," I called to him. "I am coming."
knelt beside him. "I am here," I said; but he lay quite still on his
back; he didn't move at all; he hadn't heard me. So I took his hand and
put my mouth close to his bandaged head and called to him with desperate
"I am here. What is it? What is the matter?"
He didn't move even then, but he gave a long shuddering sigh of relief.
"I thought I had been abandoned here, all alone," he said softly in his far-away voice.
seemed to awake then. I looked round me and began to tremble, as one
would tremble if one awoke with one's head over the edge of a precipice.
I saw the wounded packed round us, hemming us in. I saw his comrades,
thick round him, and the old ones shuffling about, working and munching
their hunks of bread, and the door opening to let in the stretcher
bearers. The light poured down on the rows of faces. They gleamed
faintly. Four hundred faces were staring up at the roof, side by side.
The blind man didn't know. He thought he was alone, out in the dark.
That was the precipice, that reality.
are not alone," I lied. "There are many of your comrades here, and I am
here, and there are doctors and nurses. You are with friends here, not
thought," he murmured in that far-away voice, "that you had gone away
and forgotten me, and that I was abandoned here alone."
My body rattled and jerked like a machine
out of order. I was awake now, and I seemed to be breaking to pieces.
I managed to lie again. "I had not forgotten you, nor left you alone."
And I looked down again at the visible half of his face and saw that his
lips were smiling.
that I fled from him. I ran down the long, dreadful hut and hid behind
my screen and cowered, sobbing, in a corner, hiding my face.
The old ones were very troubled. They didn't know what to do. Presently I heard them whispering:
"She is tired," one said.
"Yes, she is tired."
"She should go off to bed," another said.
"We will manage somehow without her," they said.
Then one of them timidly stuck a grizzled head round the corner of the screen. He held his tin cup in his hands. It was full of hot coffee. He held it out, offering it to me. He didn't know of anything else that he could do for me.
End of Blind by Mary Borden