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Drowning Ruth


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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 herhusband
to come back from the war. I knew that, at home where I belonged, I
could set myself right again.

Outside the train station, I drew the city's breath, yeasty from
the breweries and bittersweet from the chocolate factory, into my
lungs and felt better already. My grip on my bag was tight. I
wasn't late or excessively early. And now, for the first time in
weeks, I was hungry, ravenous, in fact. I went into the station and
stopped at a counter to buy myself a bag of peanuts with extra salt
and a cup of coffee that didn't burn my tongue. When I'd finished
the nuts, I was still hungry.

"Would you wrap half a ham salad?" I said. "No, better make it a
whole. And some of that chicken. And maybe a piece of pie. The
cherry, please."

Someone down the counter was drinking a chocolate milkshake that
looked awfully good, and I was tempted to order one of those.

"That's what I like," the counterman said, punching numbers into
the register, "a woman who can eat."

So I changed my mind about the milkshake. As I was paying my bill,
they called my train.

"One way, miss? Goin' home?" the conductor asked, steadying himself
with his hip along the seat in front of me.

I nearly began to explain that it wasn't right, really, to consider
it home any longer, even though legally the farm was half mine.
Really it belonged to my sister now, since she lived there, had a
family there, and I was just going back for a restorative visit
because somehow my body had taken on a life of its own. I wanted to
confess that I'd been banished because I had failed as a nurse,
because no one, including me, believed that I could coax soldiers
back into proper shape when I was such a mess myself. But it isn't
in me to say such things out loud.

"That's right," I said.

He winked. "Tickets!" he bawled and lurched away down the swaying
car.Spring meant even less in the country than it did in the city
that year, and by the time we pulled up to the icy little platform
in Nagawaukee, the sky was heavy with unfallen snow. The wind bit
at my face, so that I had to duck my head. I watched the toes of my
boots as I stepped down the slick platform stairs and picked my way
over the snow that drifted across the street in long pulls like
taffy. My steps took me one, two, three buildings down from the
platform where I stopped at the door of Heinzelman's Bait and
Tackle --- "A Dozen Grubs for a Penny." I went in.

The bell over the door jingled, and the coals in the corner stove
gave an answering glow to the sudden draft. Then the curtains
behind the counter parted, and Mary Louise Lindgren emerged from
the back room. She smiled when she saw me, beamed, you could say,
and wiped her hands on her apron front in that nervous way she had,
as she hurried toward me.

"Mandy! What are you doing home?" She put her hands on my
shoulders, pressed her cheek against mine. "Ooh, you're frozen, a
block of ice!" She held her warm palms to my face for a moment and
then grabbed hold of my wrist and gave it a little tug without
pausing to let me answer her question. "Come over near the stove. I
can't believe it, just can't believe it's you! I wondered --- when
I heard the bell --- I wondered who would be coming in at this
hour, and I thought, It's probably Harry Stoltz, but, of course, it
couldn't have been, because he's over in Watertown, and then I
thought . . ."

She would have gone on about what she'd supposed and what she'd
thought after that and what she'd done next, but I

"I'm taking a vacation," I said, "a rest." It was true, in a

"Mathilda is going to be so happy!" She frowned. "But why didn't
she tell me? She was in here only two days ago."

"Mattie doesn't know."

That was all I needed to say, because she broke in immediately."A
surprise! How wonderful! And, Mandy," she leaned toward me and
lowered her voice discreetly, though there was no one else in the
shop to hear, "I have a surprise too." She waited until she was
sure she had my full attention. "George and I may have a little
one." She patted her apron front significantly.

I didn't know what to say to this. Mary Louise had been pregnant
every one of the five years since she and George Lindgren had been
married, and she had lost all five of those babies, each when it
was several months along. A person ought to know when to give up, I
thought; a person ought not to court disaster. At the very least,
she should be wary. She should hold some of her feelings back. But
Mary Louise was incapable of reticence, and she didn't have the
advantage of scientific training, the way I did. She always acted
as if nothing could possibly go wrong, as if this child's birth
were written in the stars, and she need only wait for the blessed
event. Only her hands hovering protectively over her belly betrayed
the worry underneath. What she thought was growing could so easily
amount to nothing at all.

"It feels different this time," she said defensively, although I
hadn't expressed my concern.

"I hope so." Really, what else could I have said?

We agreed then that I should be on my way while there was still
light. A few steps from the store, knowing she would be watching, I
turned to look back. She held up her hand and, as I mirrored her, I
thought of the time when we were just alike, Mary Louise and I,
both happy to be finished with school for the day, running and
sliding along this very road, scanning the tower of St. Michael's
for the lantern light that we believed signaled the escape of a
lunatic, talking about why Netty Klefstaad wasn't speaking to
Ramona Mueller, and how we knew Bobby Weiss had cheated at
spelling, and what to do with the penny after you'd rubbed it on a
wart, and sometimes singing.  

Excerpted from DROWNING RUTH (c) Copyright 2000 by Christina
Schwarz. Reprinted with permission from Doubleday. All rights

Drowning Ruth
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  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345439104
  • ISBN-13: 9780345439109