It had been dark when she first entered the Fort at Chattanooga, and she hadn’t noticed the gates. She knew she’d dozed, but she must’ve been damn near dead asleep to have missed them-or so she decided, as the train dragged her through them at a swift crawl, tugging the whole line of cars through a pair of vast steel portals. They rose so far up into the sky that if Mercy craned her neck to see out the window, she could just barely make out the tops of the things-and the guards who paced back and forth there-before the train had successfully threaded through them. Afterwards, the massive hydraulic hinges crushed the mechanical doors shut once more with a grinding of metal and hissing of steam that could be heard even over the engine and the clacking of the wheels being vigorously pumped along the rails.
The engine on Mercy’s new train was called Virginia Lightning. Its hand-painted letters had caught her eye as she boarded the first car in the line, standing out in green and white against the matte black body of the engine. She’d be traveling in the first class compartment, for all that she hadn’t the money to afford it. But it was either that, the colored car, or nothing at all-or so she’d been informed at the ticket counter. It had been dumb luck that assigned her to the Pullman; a pair of ragged soldiers had tottered along, and one of them recognized her as the woman who’d done her best to save the colonel, who still clung to life somewhere, en route to either a proper hospital or a Christian burial. Between them, the two gray-clad boys had rustled through their pockets and pulled out enough money to grant the nurse the upgrade, against her feeble protests.
So she was to ride in the fancy Pullman car, all the way to Memphis.
From her semi-comfortable seat in the passenger car, Mercy had witnessed half a dozen tearful partings and one or two solemn good-byes. They reminded her of a man she’d once lovingly seen off to war. She shuddered at the thought of her dream, and closed her eyes when it was too much, trying to remember other things, without much success.
It had been so long since she’d seen Phillip, and now she wouldn’t see him again. That ought to make his face, or the sound of his voice, more precious to her mind, but strangely, this wasn’t so. What was left in his absence was an empty, sorrowful discomfort. She wondered if it wouldn’t eventually grow dull or dim if she worried at it enough, or softened and more palatable. Easier to overlook. Forgotten, or at least smoothed into some pearl-like blandness, if not a thing of beauty.
She looked around her car, which was laden with comfortably middle-class women of many shapes and ages, plus a few surly children who’d had the seriousness of the occasion impressed upon them until they grudgingly held their tongues.
The first two hours on the track between Fort Chattanooga and Memphis passed dully, with all the passengers acting docile and blank, waiting for their destination, and counting on precious little entertainment in the interim. But in the third hour, Mercy was startled by a tap on her shoulder. When she turned around, she gazed up into the face of a mulatto woman, perhaps forty years old or a little more.
She was dressed in clothing nicer than anything Mercy had ever personally owned, and she smelled faintly of gardenias, or some perfume derived therefrom. Her hair had been braided up and back, and a hat was perched on it with such firmness that the nurse doubted she could’ve knocked it loose with a stick.
“Pardon me,” said the woman. “I don’t mean to bother you, but I was wondering if you were a nurse. I saw the cloak, and your bag, there.”
“Yes, I’m a nurse.”
“From the fields?”
“Not on purpose,” Mercy said. “But I been in the fields, just the other night.”
The train gave a shrug as it changed its velocity to climb a low grade. The woman shrugged with it and asked, “Could I sit here, just a moment?”
Mercy said, “I don’t see why not,” even though she was pretty sure that plenty of other people in the car could think of a few good reasons. Most of the other women in the car shifted or adjusted their luggage, and either pretended not to look, or made a point of looking. Still, Mercy gestured to the empty seat on the aisle.
But the woman kept standing, and said, “My name’s Agatha Hyde, and I’m on my way to Memphis to meet my brother. My son-he’s in the next car back-he was tomfooling around this morning as we were getting ready to leave, and I’m afraid he might have broken his foot falling down the stairs. We wrapped him up and headed out because we had a train to catch, same as everyone on board here; but he won’t stop crying about it, and it seems like it’s swelling up something awful. I was hoping, maybe, that I could ask you if you’d take a look at it.”
“Mrs. . . . Mrs. Hyde,” Mercy said, “I’m not a doctor or anything, and-”
“I can pay you,” she said quickly. “I can appreciate the position I’m putting you in, here like this, but my boy’s only a little thing, and I’d hate for him to grow up lame because I didn’t know how to fix his bones and we couldn’t find a colored doctor till Memphis.”
Mercy opened her mouth to say something about how it wasn’t about the money, but the money did in fact make it easier for her to say, “I suppose I could take a look. I can’t make you any promises, though.”
Someone to the rear of the car said, “Honestly,” under her breath, but no one else said a word as Mercy collected her bag and followed the older woman back into the next car.
The next car back was emptier than Mercy’s. Most of the people in it had skin in shades varying from toffee to ink, and there was a greater spread of passengers represented, from working class to leisure class. Again, she mostly saw women and children; but a few old men gathered at the back, playing chess on a board they balanced on the seat between them. Everyone gazed at her curiously. Mercy stiffened, but said, “Hello.”
Some of them said hello back, and some of them didn’t.
Mrs. Hyde led Mercy over to a corner row, where two brown children were wearing crisp Sunday clothes. One of them had his arms crossed over his chest, and dried tear-trails marking his cheeks. His foot was wrapped up to such a size that he could’ve hidden a hatbox under the bandages.
Mercy took the bench across from him and said, “Hi, there, um . . .”
“His name’s Charles.”
“Charles, all right. Hi, there, Charles. I’m Nurse Mercy,” she told him, and gestured at his foot. “Your momma’s asked me to take a peek at your foot. Would that be fine with you?”
He ran his forearm under his nose to wipe it, and squinted at her. Charles was seven or eight, and he looked precisely as disgruntled as one might expect from a boy with his foot wrapped so extensively. But he nodded, and Mercy told him, “Good. That’s good.”
Children had never been her favorite patients, though, as the doctors at Robertson had pointed out more than once, grown men often behaved far worse than little boys. Mercy couldn’t argue, but she hadn’t had little boys in her care too much, except for a few of the other nurses’ children, or the children of the widows or wives of the maimed who came to the hospital to visit. Small colored children were even farther out of her realm of expertise, and small colored children with monied parents went right past her threshold of experience.
But all things being equal, she figured a busted-up leg was a busted-up leg, and there was no sense in letting the little fellow suffer from it if there was anything she could do about it.
So she did her best to ignore the inquisitive eyes that followed her every move. Before long, she came to the conclusion that she was not much more out of place in the colored car than in the rich car, where her fellow passengers were high-class ladies who’d never worked a day in their lives, with their trussed-up offspring and upturned noses.
She turned back to Charles, saying, “Here, I’m just gonna pick up your leg and set it on my knees, you see?” as she took the tiny leg and began the process of unwinding the swaths of cloth that bound it.
Mrs. Hyde said, “I do appreciate you taking the time like this. I know you’re only traveling, and not working, and as I told you, I don’t mind paying for the service. There’s not a doctor on this train, and even if there was one, I don’t know that he’d bother with us. But I thought maybe another woman . . .”
Mercy said, “I understand,” because she did, and because she wasn’t sure what else she should say to follow that.
“Do you have any children of your own?”
“No,” she said. “My husband died not long after we married. We never had no children.”
“I’m sorry,” said Mrs. Hyde. “He died in the war?”
Mercy nodded. And suddenly, because she’d wanted to say it for so long, but had no one to say it to, she blurted out in a hard whisper, “He was from Kentucky. He died at Andersonville.”
Taken aback, Mrs. Hyde said, “But you . . . you’re-”
“I been working at the Rebel hospital up in Richmond. Patching up the grays.”
“Oh my,” said the other woman. “It’s . . .” She hesitated. “These are complicated times. And I’m sorry about your Yank,” she said the word softly. “But I’m glad you’re here on board, and I mean every word when I say I thank you.”
Mercy reached the end of the winding bandages. The limb she unwrapped had met some terrible event; that much was plain. The top of the foot was swollen far beyond its regular size, and Charles’s tears flowed afresh when the nurse prodded it.
Mercy asked, “What’d he do, exactly?”
Mrs. Hyde frowned at the child, who grimaced back with his lower lip puckering. “He fell down the stairs, running after his sister. If he’d had his shoes on like I told him, he might not’ve slipped.”
Charles began, “She took my-”
“I don’t care,” his mother said, punctuating every word with a firmness that told the boy that the time for arguing was well past. “You knew better.”
“Sorry, sugar,” Mercy said. She lifted the foot and peered at it from all the other angles before saying, “Maybe I’m wrong, but . . .” She looked again, and harder, and pressed against the purpled flesh over the boy’s protests. “It’s not the worst I ever seen by a long shot. I think probably he’s cracked a couple of the little bones here on the top of his foot, and maybe broke one outright. But it could be worse. If he’d messed up his ankle, that would’ve been a lot harder to heal. These little ones over here-” She indicated the spot where the real damage appeared to have occurred. “-there’s not much to be done about them. All you can do is wrap his foot up tight and keep him off it, as much as you can. And once it heals up, it won’t bother his walking too bad, like it would if it’d broken at a joint.”
“Can you show me how to wrap it up?”
She nodded, and reached into her bag. “I’ve got some willow extract here-let me give you some. It won’t speed up the healing, but it’ll take the edge off the pain and swelling some.” Then she straightened the bandage and tore about half its length off. “If you tie it right,” she explained, “you only need about this much.”
She straightened the boy’s foot out. He whimpered, and chewed on the back of his hand.
Mercy wound the cloth tightly, but not so tightly that she’d cut off all the blood. She braced it back around his ankle to hold it stiff, and finally, when she was done, she asked Mrs. Hyde to hold the end while she rustled around in her bag again. She pulled out a pair of safety pins and fastened it, then put the boy’s foot back down.
Mrs. Hyde cooed over him briefly, telling him how brave he’d been, and she reached for a bag that had been tucked under the other child’s arm. “Thank you so much, Nurse. . . . Here, let me dip into the travel fund and see-”
But Mercy shook her head, having come to a decision on the matter. “No, please. That’s not necessary. All I did was tie up his foot. It’s not a big thing, and he’ll be all right.”
“Please, I insist!”
But Mercy hemmed and hawed, rising to leave, and finally Mrs. Hyde sighed and gave up. “If you won’t take any money, that’s fine. But listen, dear,” she said-which Mercy thought sounded strange coming from a mixed woman, whether or not she was almost old enough to be Mercy’s mother-“pretty much everyone here’s getting off in Memphis. And you are, too, isn’t that right?”
“That’s right,” she said.
Mrs. Hyde rifled through her bag once more and pulled out a sharp white card with her name printed on it, and the legend, “The Cormorant: Traditional Cuisine, Soul Food, and Fine Dining for All Types.” Beneath that was listed, “Knoxville, Chattanooga, Memphis.”
She said, “This is my restaurant. Or, they’re my restaurants, mine and my sister’s.”
“You have your own restaurants? I didn’t know . . .” She knew of some free colored men who owned property in Richmond, but she’d never heard of a woman owning anything like this.
Mrs. Hyde shrugged. “There used to be laws about it, but those laws are getting looser. And there’s ways around them now. These days.”
“Restaurants,” Mercy said again, taking the card and reading it. “You’ve got three of them?”
“The one in Memphis just opened last year. We started in Knoxville and worked our way west,” she said proudly. Then a sly look crossed her face. She added, “You’re a southern girl, I can see that plain as day. But I bet you never had anyone but your momma cooking for you.”
“Yeah. I grew up on a farm. We had farmhands, but nobody to help with . . .” She was beginning to catch on. She said, “You, and your sister-I guess you used to be-” She stopped herself from saying house niggers because suddenly it seemed impolite, or maybe she only felt outclassed. She continued, “You used to do all the cooking for the rich ladies, in the plantations.”
Mrs. Hyde winked at her. “Some of us didn’t feel like sticking around as employees, for what they were talking about paying us. We figured we could do better on our own. My sister Adele, she wrote our first cookbook, and it sold like crazy! Then we went into business together, thinking we could make the food ourselves and sell it just as easy.”
“Nice!” Mercy exclaimed with genuine admiration. “And it’s called the Cormorant? Or all three of them are?”
“Mm-hmm. It’s a franchise, that’s what it’s called. And you listen to me, dear,” she said it again. “You take this card, and you show it to the host at the Memphis Cormorant. You tell him I said to let you have anything you want, and I’ll take care of it.”
Mercy said, “Gosh, thank you-I mean it, thank you very much. I’ve been eating travel food for the last few days, and I don’t mind telling you, that sounds real good right about now.”
Mrs. Hyde patted her arm. “Don’t you worry about it. And thank you, for fixing up my Charlie.”
The nurse left with the card, and returned to her original seat in the forward car.
Memphis was only a few hours more, plus or minus a stop or two where people got off and people got on. The train filled up and emptied out in unequal measure, since more people were headed for Memphis than to Lawrenceburg, Kimball, Selmer, or Somerville.
But eventually the Memphis station rolled into view, a beautiful white beaux arts building that looked like a museum. Mercy thought it was definitely the prettiest thing she’d seen in Tennessee thus far, day or night, city or countryside. Fort Chattanooga was a military garrison, and every stop in between had featured small-town nondescript style. This station, though . . . it made the nurse crane her head around to see out the window again, if only to admire it before she could enter its undoubtedly hallowed halls.
The train pulled into its slot with a squeal of the brakes that pinched the track all along the vehicle’s length, and Mercy stepped out into a crowd that flowed riverlike along the platforms, under the overhangs that shaded waiting and debarking travelers from the sun.
Now it was growing late again, and cooler, which the nurse found disorienting. It felt as though her entire life had been lived from dusk to dawn ever since she learned of Phillip, only tiptoeing around the edges of sunset or sunrise, and sleeping or traveling all day.
She stretched, then turned her neck to and fro to let it pop and spring back to its usual position. Her satchel was heavy in her arms, more so now than ever with the added weight of the guns; she slung it over one shoulder, under her cloak. The cloak felt almost too warm, but with night coming on, she’d be glad to have it-she knew that-and, anyway, she didn’t want to carry it.
Mercy shuffled along in the crowd until she’d reached the lovely terminal building and filtered inside it. The interior was as lovely as the exterior promised, with marbled floors that shone so brightly, the lanterns’ reflections made Mercy squint. Every surface was shined, from the polished wood of the handrails and guardrails to the brass of the fixtures and the glass of the ticket windows.
But although the building was a marvel, Mercy was famished, so she hastily ushered herself out and away from it, pausing only to ask directions to the restaurant called the Cormorant and hailing a buggy cab to take her there. She fondled the card between her fingers and hoped it’d be enough, as promised, and furthermore that she wouldn’t find herself embarrassingly underdressed. This latter thought burrowed beneath her outer layer of security and festered there, remembering Mrs. Hyde’s fine clothes and her mannered children and comparing them to her own stained dress and gunsmoke-smelling cloak.
The Cormorant looked to be a firmly middle-class establishment, and a popular one. Mercy saw mostly white people coming and going, but there were a handful of colored people (relegated to a separate dining section, she noted when she arrived inside), and even a pair of Indian men wearing matching clothes that may or may not have been some kind of uniform.
A man at a pedestal asked if he could help her, and she handed him the card that by now she’d worn so thoroughly that the corners had curled. “I . . . I talked to Mrs. Hyde, on the train here from Fort Chattanooga. She said if I gave this to you, that-”
“Oh, yes!” he said sharply. “Yes, indeed. Are you alone tonight, Miss-” He spied the ring on her finger. “Missus?”
“Lynch. Yes, I’m alone tonight. Is that all right?” She looked around and saw no one else dining alone, and her sense of conspicuousness grew. She was on the verge of changing her mind altogether and begging the host’s pardon before she left when a familiar voice cried out from a table by the far left wall.
“Nurse? Nurse Mercy, wasn’t that it? Well look at you,” declared Mrs. Henderson, from the dirigible and its terrible aftermath. “Dear child, you made your way to Memphis after all.” The older woman stood and crossed the room, dodging a serving girl or two and taking Mercy’s hand. “I’m so glad you arrived here safely! Won’t you join us?”
She gestured toward the table, and to her husband, who was freshly washed and smiling happily at her over his shoulder.
Mercy said, “That’d be very kind, thank you.”
The nurse continued to feel out of place, but when seated with the Hendersons, she grew more at ease. Mercy suspected quite quickly that Mrs. Henderson was overjoyed by the prospect of conversation with someone other than her addled husband, and it was hard to blame her. The two of them did most of the talking until supper arrived.
Mercy had chosen the sweet potatoes and pork chops, with apple pie for dessert, and she could scarcely pause between bites to keep up her end of the chatter. When she was finally so full that she thought she’d burst, she leaned back and said aloud, “Well, that was just wonderful! That lady sure knows how to make a pie, I’ll tell you what.”
Mrs. Henderson’s brows knit ever so slightly. “Lady? But I thought you said you met her in the colored car?”
“Ah.” Mrs. Henderson sipped at the tea that had come at the end of the meal, delivering only a tiny glance of reproach at the nurse, who suddenly felt a little stubborn about the whole thing, and outclassed again from another direction entirely.
“Well,” she said at the risk of being rude. “She was nice to me, and she can cook like the devil.”
The older woman opted to change the subject. “At any rate.” She concluded the phrase as if it were a full sentence, and began again. “How long do you plan to remain here in Memphis?”
“Not too long. I need to find a boat that’ll take me upriver.”
“Upriver?” Mr. Henderson piped up with a voice that declared him to be deeply appalled by the prospect. “Little missy, what would . . .” But then some other thing snared his attention, upending his displeasure and scattering his attention like a child’s blocks.
His wife picked up the thread and said, “I’m sure he only means, it’s wartime and you’re going north? A woman of your skills and abilities? You should stay here, with our lads, and perform your patriotic duties. If not at the Robertson Hospital-that’s where you’d been before, correct?-then perhaps one of the Fort’s establishments, or even here, in Memphis. A good nurse is always in need.”
“My father’s gone west, and contracted some illness. I’m not sure what ails him, but I mean to go see to him, all the same.” Not so far from the truth, after all. And a daughter’s duty might compete with a nurse’s.
“West, you say? Off to the Republic, then, are you?”
“No ma’am. Wester than that. I’m going all the way to the coast, to the Washington territory.”
“Gracious me, that’s an alarming proposition. Going all that way, all by yourself?” she asked, setting her cup down on the saucer with a sturdy clink.
Mercy said, “My husband died. There’s nobody left to go with me.”
“I suppose no one can fault you for the trouble, but my, how it worries me! In my day and age, young ladies wouldn’t dream of such travels alone, not even working women like yourself-no offense, of course. Now, more than ever, I fear it’s all the worse for the war.”
“I’m inclined to agree with you,” Mercy said, even though she wasn’t, though she wasn’t offended either. “But you know what they say about desperate times and desperate measures. I’ll be all right. I just need to find a place to sleep and get on a steamer first thing in the morning, to haul me up to St. Louis.”
Mr. Henderson revived again, long enough to nod and say, “St. Louis. A fine city.”
“Is it?” Mercy asked politely, happy to redirect the topic. “I’ve never been before.”
“Transcontinental,” he said. “Lines there’ll take you right to the water, clear out to the Pacific.”
She nodded. “They’ll take me to Tacoma. That’s where I’m headed in the long run, so St. Louis is where I’m going for now.”
Mrs. Henderson pursed her lips and said, “I might be able to help with the ship you seek, if not necessarily a place to stay for the night.”
Mercy understood. The Hendersons were undoubtedly staying somewhere where she couldn’t possibly afford to join them. “I’ll gratefully take any suggestions you can give me, ma’am.”
Satisfied by this much, at least, Mrs. Henderson said, “Very well. If you make your way down to the pier, I believe the steamer Providence is still docked there, at least through tomorrow morning. I can’t recall precisely when Benham said they’d be setting forth.”
“I’m sorry . . . Benham?”
“My brother-in-law. My sister married him. She’s gone now, God rest her soul, but he’s a good fellow in his way, and the Providence is his ship. He has a special dispensation to travel back and forth through the borders and boundaries; he’s a Texan by birth, you see, and technically his ship is politically undeclared.”
“Technically.” Mercy knew what that meant. Everybody knew Texas worked with the Confederacy, fueling it and feeding it. Keeping it alive.
“Technically,” Mrs. Henderson repeated without a wink or a smile, but with a rush of breath that indicated some tiny mote of clandestine excitement. “If you’re bound for St. Louis, he can get you there faster than any certified ship you might otherwise board. Oh, the checkpoints are dreadful. They drag the journey out by two or three days sometimes.”
“Really? I’ve never been up or down the river, so I don’t know how it works.”
“Oh, it doesn’t work at all. That’s the problem! It’s an endless, halting parade of inspections, bribes, and nonsense-but if you’re aboard a Texas vessel, you’ll find less inconvenience along the way.”
“It’s because of their guns!” declared Mr. Henderson, once more escaping his reverie, bobbing out of it as if to gasp for air.
“Concise, my love.” Mrs. Henderson gave him a smile. “And correct. Texans are heavily armed and often impatient. They don’t need to be transporting arms and gunpowder to create a great nuisance for anyone who stops them, so they tend to be stopped . . . less often.”
“That’s good to know,” Mercy said, suddenly eager to wrap up the meal and escape the company-which wasn’t fair, she thought, but the Hendersons made her feel a little on display, and still quite awkwardly conspicuous. She also still needed to find lodging for the night. She stifled a yawn with the back of her hand. “I thank you for all the kind suggestions, and the company for the meal. But I hope you’ll excuse me now. It’s getting late, and I’ve had a rough couple of days.”
“Don’t we know it!” Mrs. Henderson exclaimed. She exclaimed almost every short thing she said, and now that it’d been noticed, Mercy couldn’t unnotice it.
The nurse took her napkin off her lap, wadded it up beside the plate, thanked the couple once more, and gathered her satchel to leave.
Outside, it was dark yet again.
Down the street, Mercy spied a Salvation Army sign swinging beneath a fizzing gas lamp. This seemed like a safe enough place to ask for directions, so she knocked upon the door and was greeted by a small, squat woman in a gray suit that matched her hair. Her face was round and friendly. She asked if she could be of service.
“I’m Mrs. Leotine Gaines,” she declared. She looked Mercy up and down, and before the nurse could reply, she asked, “Are you a sister from one of our English offices?”
“Oh, no. I’m sorry, I’m not,” Mercy said. Any doubts Mrs. Gaines might’ve had would surely be buffeted away by the Virginia accent. “I’m from Richmond, and only passing through. But I was looking for a place to spend the night, and I wondered if you might direct me to something safe and quiet. I have to catch a steamer in the morning.”
“Ah.” Mrs. Gaines said it with a happy snap. “And I’m not mistaken, am I? I recognize it now, the cross you carry. It’s not so different from our own. You’re a medical woman, yes?”
Mercy grinned, having not heard it put that way before. “I’m a nurse. I have a letter from the Robertson Hospital, anyway.”
“Please, won’t you come on inside? I have a small proposal for you.”
“Certainly. An exchange of services, if you will. Come on, Nurse-or, Mrs. . . . I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Lynch. I’m Mercy Lynch,” she said. It occurred to her that she hadn’t given anyone her Christian name since she’d taken to the road, though her own motivations in the matter were unclear, even to herself.
“Nurse Lynch. Yes, indeed. Come in, and let me get you some tea.”
“But, ma’am, I’m awful run down. I’ve had . . . too much excitement these last few nights. It’s a humdinger of a story. I don’t know if you’d even believe me, if I told you. But I’m so worn out.”
Mrs. Gaines said cheerfully, “Tea will take the edge off of that! I’ll set a kettle on. Here, make yourself comfortable at the table there, in our kitchen area.” With a broad sweep of her arm, she indicated a room beyond an open doorway. “I’d see you to the dining area, but it’s been cleaned up and sorted for the night, and besides, right now most of the people living here are men-single men, many of them all torn up from the war. We tend to leave the proper dining area for them. The other ladies and I take our victuals back here.”
She seized a kettle as promised, filled it with water, and set it to boil while Mercy took a seat at a low wood table set with benches on either side. She dropped the satchel beside her left thigh. As the stove heated and the water within the kettle warmed, Mrs. Gaines sat down across the table from Mercy and continued. “You see, it’s as I said: Here at this mission we help the men who’ve fallen down on their luck, as well as those who’ve taken to alcohol or other vices. It’s our good Christian duty. But right now, our doctor is out at the front, having been called there by none other than General Jackson himself, and we’re . . . shall we say . . . between replacements right now. My own nursing skills are minimal at best, and I think I do myself too much credit to even say that much. It’s a pity, too, because we have a handful of fellows here in various stages of . . . oh, I can’t say what! It’s surpassing strange, is all I know. They seem to be dying of . . . not a disease, precisely. But I’d love a professional’s opinion on the matter, and if you wouldn’t mind giving them an hour of attention, I’d be more than happy to see you settled in one of our officer’s suites upstairs.”
Mercy didn’t take long to think about it. It’d take her a couple of hours to find someplace else to stay for the night, likely as not, and the kettle was nearly boiling. She didn’t know what a Salvation Army officer’s suite was, but if it came with a bed and a basin, she’d chalk it up as a lucky find.
“All right, Mrs. Gaines. I expect I won’t get a better offer tonight, anyhow.”
“I expect you won’t.” She winked, and pulled the kettle from the stove. “Not in this part of town, at any rate.”
“It didn’t seem so bad,” Mercy said, eyeing the china cup. “There’s a nice restaurant down the street.”
“The Cormorant? Yes, it’s a good place with good food, if you can afford it. The neighborhood is beginning to gentrify, in bits and pieces, and the restaurant is pulling more than its fair weight. It’s helped by its proximity to the train station, I imagine, and the river isn’t so awful far away, either.”
When the tea was finally ready to sip, Mercy sipped more extensively than Mrs. Gaines, who was happy to provide most of the chatter.
It turned out that Mrs. Gaines was originally of Maryland, which satisfied Mercy’s curiosity about her somewhat un-Tennessee-like accent; and that she was also widowed without any children. She’d been visiting distant cousins in England when she’d learned of the Salvation Army and its intent, and she’d been intensely eager to begin a chapter back in her own land. How she’d wound up in Memphis remained a bit of a veiled mystery, but Mercy didn’t pry.
When the tea had been drunk and the china washed and put away, Mrs. Gaines led Mercy back through the building with a lamp in hand to augment the few that had been placed on the walls but turned down low on account of the hour.
“This once was a Catholic school,” whispered Mrs. Gaines. “It’s suited our purposes well, since it was laid out for dormitories and classrooms. This way, and up these stairs, if you please. I’m afraid we’ve had to isolate the sicker men from the others,” she said as she pulled a ring of iron keys out of a pocket in her suit.
Mrs. Gaines took a particularly pointed key, jammed it into the lock, turned it, and retrieved it. Then she added, “Please don’t think less of us for the restraints.”
The nurse’s voice slipped half an octave out of her usual range. “Restraints?”
Mrs. Gaines pleaded, “Just look at them, and you’ll see. And be careful. Don’t let them bite you.”
“Yes, bite. They do that sometimes, I’m afraid. But don’t worry-I’m convinced that their ailment is caused by a substance, and not some unaccountable microbe or spore. But the bites do hurt, and they are prone to inflammation. Again, I’d beg you not to judge our handling of the matter until you see for yourself.”
Finally, she opened the door. She leaned forward, setting the lamp on a shelf to the left of the doorframe, then picked up a candle to light a few other spots as well. The light did nothing to wash away the horror. In fact, the flickering gold, white, and red wobbly beams only added a more gruesome cast to the scene.
Four men lay restrained on pallets, each suffering from the same affliction. All were bone thin, with skin hanging from the peaks and joints of their skeletons like rags on a line, and all were boasting a set of cankerous sores around the mouth and the nose-and almost entirely across one poor man’s eyes. It was difficult to see from the diluted light in the windowless room, but it looked to Mercy like their skin had a yellowish tinge, as if the kidneys or liver were the root of the problem. It looked familiar-or, rather, it looked like the logical conclusion of something familiar.
“Wheezers,” she breathed.
Mrs. Gaines looked at her strangely but did not ask any questions yet.
One man moaned. The other three simply lay there, either sleeping or dying.
“That’s Irvin,” Mrs. Gaines said softly of the moaner. “He’s the one in the best condition. You might actually get a few words out of him. He’s more lucid than the rest.”
“And you took him in, like this? With the wounded veterans and alcoholics?” Mercy asked, keeping her voice low and hoping that by lowering her volume, she could diminish the reproach that filled the question.
“The symptoms were gentler when these men arrived. But things deteriorated so badly, so quickly; at first we thought we had a plague on our hands, but it became clear within a few weeks that the ailment is self-inflicted.” Mrs. Gaines shook her head. “The best I can ascertain is that there’s some form of drug that’s becoming common out on the lines-making its way both north and south, amongst the foot soldiers. You know how they trade amongst themselves. They call it ‘sap,’ or sometimes ‘yellow sap,’ though I’ve heard other designations for it, too. Sick sand, grit, and . . . well, some of their names aren’t very polite.”
Mercy sat down beside Irvin. He did seem to be the least afflicted, though he still presented the very picture of death warmed over in a chamber pot. She’d seen it before, the hue of his skin and dull crust of his sores. But this went well beyond anything she’d encountered in the Robertson. This was something else, or something more extensive.
Mrs. Gaines hovered, wringing her hands. “Have you ever seen anything like it?”
Irvin’s head rolled slowly so that he looked at her, without really looking at her at all. He did turn his neck so that he faced her direction, but whether he was curious or simply delirious, it was hard to tell. His lids cracked open, revealing squishy, yellowish eyeballs that had all the life of half-cooked egg whites.
“Maybe,” she replied. Then she said, “Hello there, Irvin.” She said it nervously, keeping an eye on his mouth, and the oversized teeth that dwelled therein. The warning about the bites had stuck with her like a tick.
It might have been a trick of Mercy’s imagination, but she thought the cadaverous lad nodded, so she took this as encouragement and continued. “Irvin, I’m going to . . . I’m going to examine you a little bit, and see if I can’t . . . um . . . help.”
He did not protest, so she brought the lamp closer and used it to determine that his pupils were only scarcely reacting to the light; and he did not flinch or fuss when she turned his head to the side to peer into the canal of his nearest ear-which was clotted like a pollen-laden flower. She took a fingernail to the outermost crust of this grainy gold stuff and it chipped away as if it’d grown there like lichen on the side of a boat.
Mrs. Gaines did her best to keep from wrinkling her nose, and did an admirable job of at least keeping the heights of her discomfort to herself. She observed Mercy’s every move closely and carefully, without any kind of interference, except to say, “His ears have been leaking like that for days now. I don’t think it bodes well for him. I mean, you can see the other gentlemen have the same problem-it’s not mere wax, you can tell that for yourself.”
“No, not wax. It’s more like dried-up paste.” She shifted the lamp, and Irvin obligingly leaned his head back, as Mercy directed. “And it’s all up his nose, too. Good Lord, look at those sores. They must hurt like hell.”
Mrs. Gaines frowned briefly but outright at her language, but didn’t say anything about it. “One would think. And they do pick at the sores, which only makes them worse.”
“It looks almost like . . .” She peered closer. “The crust from sun poisoning. Like blisters that have festered, popped, and dried. Mrs. Gaines, I assume these men are regularly turned over and cleaned?”
The other woman’s mouth went tight. “We pay some of our negro washwomen extra to come up here and perform those duties. But this isn’t a hospital. We don’t have staff that’s prepared or qualified to do such things.”
Mercy waved her hand as if none of this was relevant to what she was asking. “Sure, I understand. But could you tell me if the yellow grit also manifests below the belt?”
Even in the lamplight, Mercy could see Mrs. Gaines redden. “Ah, yes. Erm . . . yes. It does soil their undergarments as well. I realize the poor souls can’t help themselves, but I do wish I knew what it was, and how to prevent it. They’re cleaned daily, I assure you, top to . . . well, bottom. But you see how the material accumulates.”
The nurse sniffed at her fingernail and got a whiff of something sour and sulfurous, with a hint of human body odor attached. Yes. She knew that smell, and it filled her with disgust.
“Irvin,” she said. “Irvin, I’m Nurse Mercy, and I need for you to talk to me.”
He grunted, and tried to look at her through those runny-egg eyes. “Nurse,” he said. He said it nuss, just like the men at the hospital.
She couldn’t tell if it was an observation or a response, so she plowed forward. “Irvin, you’ve been taking something that’s terrible bad for you, haven’t you?”
“Sap.” The one word came out relatively clear. The next did also. “Need.”
“No, you don’t need it, you silly man. You don’t need it and you can’t have it, either. But I want you to tell me about it. Where did you get it?”
He rolled his face away, but she caught him by the jaw, keeping her fingers well away from his mouth.
“Irvin, answer me,” she said as sternly as any governess, and with all the command she’d learned when bossing about the surly wounded veterans. “Where did you get the sap?”
“Where did your friend get it?”
“All right. Well, tell me this: Do you smoke it like opium, or eat it, or sniff it up your nose?” She doubted that last guess, since the gritty substance also came out of his ears, and she doubted he’d been ingesting it that way.
“Sap,” he said again. Petulant.
“Which friend’s been giving it to you? Tell me that much.”
Irvin’s eyes glittered as he choked out, “Bill Saunders.”
“Bill Saunders!” Mrs. Gaines cried. “I know the man myself; I’ve given him blankets and food for these last few months, and this is how he repays me?”
“Irvin.” Mercy snagged his attention once more. “Where does Bill Saunders get it? Where does the sap come from? What is it made of?”
“West,” he said, drawing out the s against his discolored teeth, making the word sound wet and possibly venomous. “Gets it . . . West.”
Mercy turned to Mrs. Gaines to ask if there were any men from the western territories present. In the short instant that her gaze was directed elsewhere, Irvin’s head leaped up off the striped pillow and his jaw snapped like a turtle’s, making a vicious grab for the nurse’s lingering fingers.
Before Mercy could even think about her reaction, her reaction caught him upside the face in a hard right hook that split his lip and sent runny, strangely colored blood flying against the wall. His bid for human flesh had failed, and now he was unconscious, but Mercy clutched both hands against her bosom and panted like a startled cat.