Stella Bain Online - Anita Shreve

For Asya

Marne, March 1916

Sunrise glow through canvas panels. Foul smell of gas gangrene. Men moaning all around her. Pandemonium and chaos.

She floats inside a cloud. Cottony, a little dingy. Pinpricks of light summon her to wakefulness. She drifts, and then she sleeps.

Distinct sounds of metal on metal, used instruments tossed into a pan. She tries to remember why she lies on a cot, enclosed within panels of canvas, a place where men who die are prepared for burial away from the rest of the wounded, a task she has performed any number of times.

She glances down and finds that she is wearing mauve men’s pajamas. Why do her feet hurt?

A small piece of cloth with a question mark on it is pinned to a uniform hanging from a hook. For several minutes, she studies the uniform before realizing that she does not know her own name. She receives this fact with growing anxiety.

The name Lis floats lightly into her thoughts. But she does not think Lis is her name. Elizabeth…? No. Ella…? Ellen…? Possibly, though there ought to be a sibilant. She ponders the empty space where a name should be.

The name Stella bubbles up into her consciousness. Can Stella be it? She examines the letters as they appear in her mind, and the more she studies them, the more certain she is that Stella is correct.

Again, she drifts into a half sleep. When she comes to, she cannot remember the name she has decided upon. She lets her mind empty, and, gradually, it returns.

Stella.

Such a small thing.

Such a big thing.

Stella has no idea where she has come from. She senses it might be an unhappy place, a door she might not want to open. But no one’s entire past can be unhappy, can it? It might contain unhappy events or a tendency toward melancholy, but the whole cannot be miserable.

All around her, the hum of flies and the beat of fast footsteps. Orders are shouted; a new batch of wounded is coming in; the staff will want her bed, of course they will. There is nothing wrong with her, and she has simply been allowed to sleep a long time.

She rubs her feet together. A sharp pain through the muffling of bandages. How has she injured her feet?

A panel is moved aside, and she hears a woman speak in French. Seconds later, a nurse, a nun, enters the small canvas compartment. As she moves toward the bed, she looms large in her starched uniform and wimple. She scrutinizes Stella’s eyes, scanning, the patient knows, for dilated pupils. “You are British?” the sister asks.

“I am not sure,” Stella answers.

“You have been unconscious for two days,” the sister explains, stepping back and fussing with the sheets as she slides Stella’s feet from under the covers. “Your feet had bits of shrapnel in them when you arrived. Someone with a cart left you outside the tent in the middle of the night. I should like to examine your feet.”

This is someone else’s story, Stella thinks, not hers.

“What is your name?”

“Stella.” She pauses. “Where am I?”

“Marne.”

“Marne is in France?”

“Yes,” the sister answers, pursing her mouth. “My name is Sister Luke. I am British, but almost everyone else at the camp is French. We believe your boots blew off when you were knocked unconscious by the first shell and that a second shell injured your feet. You had not a scratch on you otherwise, apart from some bruises from falling.”

“Will I be able to walk?” Stella asks.

Sister Luke studies her. “I think you are American.”

“Am I?”

“From your accent. But you were found in a British VAD uniform.”

Stella cannot explain this.

“You are a VAD?”

“I don’t know.”

Stella can see that the sister is annoyed and has other, more pressing matters to attend to.

“But I know how to drive an ambulance,” she blurts out.

Is this true? If not, why does she think it is?

“You know this, and yet you do not know your posting?” the sister asks with barely concealed disbelief.

Yes, the paradox is bewildering but does not seem urgent. Beyond the canvas, Stella knows, everything is urgent.

The sister moves toward the opening in the compartment. “Apart from your feet, I can find nothing wrong with you. You will have them examined and dressed on a regular basis. Then you will rest and eat and drink while we ascertain your identification. We will contact all the nearby hospital camps. You cannot have come very far. When your feet are better, you can work. Perhaps we will see if