The pain was real. The stiffness of the sheets was real. And that stench of rotting meat was more than real. Bethany felt sure she was losing her mind.
In her dream, she ran through rain. A man chased her. She laughed and laughed knowing her destination was a hayloft. Then, she felt the prickling warning of a lightning charge building. The bolt sliced through her, searing and crackling and blue. She couldn’t even scream as she twisted out of her body and blinked into nothingness. But at the last instant, she felt the man inside her head. With that same demanding intimacy as lovemaking, somehow she felt him within her and around her. He reassured her and then she twisted again, this time out of the nothingness and suddenly here.
Where was here? Had she really been running through a rainstorm? And why was she dreaming about lightning when she had a hole in her belly?
The door of her room opened and a thin man with long fingers entered. He wore a tan cotton smock with large patch pockets and carried a black leather bag. He looked about forty-five. “Hello, Katherine. How are we feeling today?”
“We are not feeling anything. I am feeling lousy. Who are you?”
He smiled. “Oh, that game again?”
“Pretending you don’t know anybody? Not even your parents? Haven’t they been through enough, Katherine?”
She didn’t protest this time. Let him call her what he liked. Whatever mystery needed unraveling, she could unravel it later. “Humor me. Could you just say your name?”
He smiled again. His blue eyes crinkled as he pushed his graying blonde forelock out of his face. “My name is Robert. Doctor Robert Forester.”
“Thank you.” She turned her head toward the open window. “What is that killer stench?”
“Ah, it’s the bodies, rotting in the sun.”
“From the battle. Thousands of them out there. It’ll take weeks to bury them. Would you like me to close the window?”
“Yes, please.” could make no sense of his answer.
As Doctor Robert returned from the window, he lifted her covers. “I need to examine you.”
“What happened to me?”
“You were shot. Do you remember it?”
“No. I woke up in this bed. How bad is it?”
“Not as bad as I first feared. The bullet must have been spent. It went through the front of your abdomen and lodged, ah, well, inside you.”
“Well, in the, ah, chamber where babies are made.” His pale skin suddenly splotched with pink.
“It’s in my uterus?”
“Ah, yes, it was. I removed it while you were unconscious.”
“How long was I out?”
“Quite some time. I’ve been here several times in the past few days, but you may not remember. You were delirious.”
“Robert, how long have you known me?”
He chuckled as he removed the dressing on her stomach. “I delivered you.”
She sucked in her breath as he probed her abdomen. “I’m sorry,” he said. “There’s some inflammation around the wound, but that’s to be expected. The stitches are holding nicely.”
As he began to re-dress the wound, fell back on the pillow, suddenly very tired.
These people, this place, all so primitive. Was all she knew a delusion? Had she dreamed a world with flying machines, and cappuccino, and electricity? A headache built in the back of her head as she felt increasingly confused.
“So, you’ve known me all my life. Do I seem different to you?”
“You’ve had quite a shock.”
“But do I seem myself?”
“Thank you. I was beginning to think I was retarded.”
“Yes. Underdeveloped mental faculties. You know what I mean?”
“Robert, what year is this?”
“What year is it?”
She shook her head and blinked. “My God, Abe Lincoln is President.”
“That’s very good. Your memory is coming back. It’s all a matter of time. What else do you remember?”
She tilted her head up. “I don’t remember anything about this place. That’s just history.”
“Oh, Robert, that woman who says she’s my mother, she says we’re in ?”
“I got shot in the battle?”
“This is madness. I don’t belong here. This must be a dream.”
“I assure you, it’s quite real.” He finished tying a bandage around her abdomen. Then he placed his hand on her forehead. “Your wound is healing and the fever is gone. You’re making progress, young lady.”
“This was McClellan and Lee faced off across Antietam Creek?” She said the words, unsure where they came from.
“What’s the date?”
She grappled with a memory just out of reach. An event. Suddenly she had it. “Has issued the Emancipation Proclamation yet?”
“It hasn’t happened yet?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She nodded and stared straight into Doctor Robert’s eyes. “You watch. Within the next couple days, will declare the slaves in the Confederacy free. It will be called the Emancipation Proclamation.”
“This is absurd.”
“Perhaps.” She closed her eyes, not knowing quite why she had told Doctor Robert such a tale.
Three days later, on his daily visit, Doctor Robert had a queer expression on his face as he entered ’s room. He did not say hello as was his custom. He set his bag on a chair and stared at her.
Seeing his face, Beth said, “What happened?”
“The slaves were freed. Just like you said.”
“And you want to think it’s coincidence.”
“What other explanation is there?”
Her thoughts swirled. For a moment she had felt triumph, but she didn’t know why. All the evidence around her – the texture of the sheets, the pain in her belly, the rippled glass of the windows – was no dream. The undeniably sharp details of reality pricked at her mind. Yet she had visions of another place. Each evening when she closed her eyes, she felt the vertigo of a lurching ship in a stormy sea. Other scents and sights and sounds coalesced into vivid images that she also could not believe were dreams. She lived her sleeping hours in one life, and woke to a face that was not her own.
“Katherine, are you all right?”
She stared vacantly. “I have no idea.”