“Ellie,” the woman under the rumpled bed covers whispered. Her face was in parts flushed, and at the same time deathly pale. Her eyes were sunken, and Eleanor could feel the heat radiating off her skin even from a couple feet away. She ran to the washroom and filled the bucket with water from the basin and carried it back as quickly as she could. Dirty water sloshed over the sides, staining the floor in large puddles. She grabbed the cloth that lay on the small bedside table and soaked the rag, wrung it out and then dabbed her mother’s forehead with it, moving gently down onto her chest, where her nightgown was untied exposing more mottled flesh. “Ellie,” her mother repeated, her voice so quiet that Eleanor had to lean in to hear her, even though she was right next to her. “You have been a very brave girl through all of this. I never asked you for this, never asked for your help.”
Eleanor stared at her mother. Her eyes with same twin blue, though they were large and wide, whereas her mothers were small, and her lids heavy.
“But someone had to do it,” she said matter-of-factly, for a girl of just eleven. “Who else would do it? There is no one else.” Eleanor Murphy was an only child. Or ended up being, after her twin sister had not survived being born. And she had never known her father. Her mother didn’t either. He was a man that was passing through town, a gypsy man. Bands often came through town, usually in the summer months, when they brought around a travelling circus, complete with men who ate swords and woman who looked like men, and mermaid babies in giant glass jars.
Ever since her mother told her that father was a gypsy, each summer Eleanor would patiently watch the road into town every day at the end of July anxiously awaiting the circus when it came through usually the first week of August – the hottest week of the year – so that when the circus did arrive all the performers looked like wilted flowers, their clothes clinging to their skin with sweat, their vitality in their eyes but not their bodies. And when the circus did arrive, she would attend every display, every show, every spectacle, not watching the shows themselves, but the men doing the tricks or introducing what was happening to the audience. She would look at each and every man, looking to see if any of them looked familiar, if any of them looked like her with her blue eyes and blonde hair. As she got a bit older, and a bit braver, after the shows when the performers were packing up their swords or capes, or shooing the tigers back into their cages she would squeeze through the hustle and bustle of the crowds as they left and went to another show or to grudgingly return home for the night. She would wait until it was just the man, or more than one man if that happened to be the case.
“Excuse me, sir,” she would ask, so quietly that at first they wouldn’t notice she was there. She tugged on the hem of their long tunics that felt as rough as potato sacks, and they would whirl around, irritation marking their dark skinned faces until they saw Ellie, and then their eyes and mouths would soften.
“Yes, little girl?” they would say in their strangely accented voices.
Ellie would twist a foot into the dirt, not knowing how to broach the subject, and then suddenly blurt it out, unceremoniously. “Are you my father?” Once in a while the men would laugh at her, but that was rarely. Most took a step back, and regarded her seriously for a moment, before giving her a sad half smile followed by a shake of the head. She would move onto the next show, and the next man. This would happen every day for the time the circus was in town. By the end of the week, she had queried every male, even up to the head ringmaster and organizer, even though he usually wasn’t a gypsy man. And each time she would come away with the same simple answer, and the same sad pats on the shoulder or top of the head.
So when her mother was struck with what she learned was called the Scarlet Fever, it fell only to Eleanor, no one else, to take care of her as best she could. The doctor would come out once or twice a week, sometimes more, but usually less, as he was a very busy man. He would look at her mother, and give Eleanor instructions on how to care for her until the next time he returned. The doctor only came out a couple of times, and then there was no more reason for him to do so.
Eleanor leaned down and kissed her mother’s forehead that felt as hot as the sun, but was already rapidly cooling. She drew the thin coverlet up to her mother’s head, but not all the way over.
The next day her mother’s body had been removed by men who she thought were probably just reapers, people who took bodies for whatever people needed bodies for, but who the doctor said were proper health officials. She had seen a small mongrel dog limping down the street. She called to it softly and it came to her. She examined its paw and determined with a now practised eye that it had been cut. She tore a strip from the bottom of her dress and wrapped it tightly around the animals foot, and then coaxed it back home with the promise of some beef from a soup she had made a few days before that now was too much for her to eat by herself.
A shout woke her, bolt up-right in bed. The soft, silvery light of dawn was just beginning to stretch its fingers over the jagged mountain tops in the east, the direction her windows faced. There was a loud banging on her door, and female voices shouting. Her day had started once more.
She ended up in one of the makeshift tents at the edge of the battlefield. The man was too hurt to even make it all the way back to the hospital. She froze when she saw him being shifted from stretcher to the low cot. He looked exactly how her mother had – flushed yet pale at the same time, and for a moment she was a little girl again, at her mother’s bedside, dabbing her dry skin with a damp cloth. She rushed to his side and knelt on the hard packed earth. She couldn’t save her mother, but she could save him. She took the man’s hands in her own and hissed out a breath at the heat of them. She didn’t think the man had the scarlet fever as her mother had. His skin was bright cherry red, and shiny. She knew it was steam burns. He was a golem controller.
The burns were mainly on his arms and legs, but there were some across his chest. His face was pink, but it was more simply from heat than actual burns, and his eyes were pale white, like an inverse raccoon, thanks to the protective goggles they wore while operating the automatons.
He looked at her, but his eyes saw through her, only dealing with the pain that he was in, not able to register anything or anyone. Two other nurses arrived holding large swathes of cotton dipped in a sweet smelling salve that tickled Eleanor’s nose and reminded her sadly of the lavender water that her mother always wore. They draped the material over the man, ignoring his piercing screams, turning him into a mummy. His screams turned to whimpers and Eleanor wondered if she should try it. She had never used it yet. Her father, her real father had given it to her, but it came at a bitter sweet price – his death.
The man stared at her silently, looking through her with tear filled eyes. She began the incantation, one she had memorized since she received the gift from her father. She really did think of it as a gift. To someone in her field, at least, it was. If only she had discovered her father back then, when her mother became sick. Then again, that would have changed her life completely, set her on a different path. One that, she was fairly certain, wouldn’t have led her to where she was right at that moment, at the bedside of this soldier. This man that she had never met, or seen before, but looking into his glassy copper-brown eyes, felt a sudden and unexplainable connection. She suddenly was gripped by the need, no the urge, to save this man’s life, at all cost. Of course she always aimed to save the lives of the men she and the other nurses treated. It was their job, after all.
But she was scared, if truth be told. Scared that she wouldn’t do it right, that something would go wrong. She tried to think back to that fateful day. She was trying to pay attention to what her father was telling her – the instructions on how to do it – it wasn’t simply a case of reciting the words that were etched into her skin, it was the way you delivered those words. She had tried to concentrate, but it was hard – hard when the man who was telling you what to do was slipping away from you – just like her mother had. Just like her twin and her mother had done. She wanted to save her father – she wanted to get to know him more, but he waved her ministrations away. “It’s too late for me Eleanor,” he said. “Listen to me.”
“Ellie,” she interrupted, even though she knew she shouldn’t be wasting what little time he had left correcting him.
He had smiled at that, flashing white teeth that contrasted with his tanned skin and continued, showing her how to form the words correctly. She tried to cling onto the lilting softness of his accent, but when she tried to picture him, instead of remembering what he was telling her, she just saw him behind the metal bars, like one of the circus animals, but he was in no circus. He was awaiting his fate.
One of the guards came by and whacked the bars of his cell loudly with a baton. “Five more minutes Kariakos.” He shouted, pointedly sweeping his gaze over Eleanor, ignoring she was there, clutching the bars on the outside, the free side, with white knuckles.
She shook her head to clear the last image she had of her father, his unruly dark hair, and shocking green eyes peering out of his cage like a lion resigned to his fate.
She mumbled the words she had memorized from the day her father had bestowed her with this gift. The syllables tripped over each other, and she had to stop and start again a few times, slowing her heart, focusing, concentrating, making sure she said everything just right.