Excerpt

The Winter Soldier

Daniel Mason

September 11, 2018 
The following is from Daniel Mason's novel, The Winter Soldier. Set in Vienna just before World War I breaks out, The Winter Soldier tells the story of a young medical student named Lucius and a nurse, Sister Margarete. The novel explores war, medicine, family, and finding love in the tides of history. Daniel Mason is a physician and author of three novels. He is a recipient of a National Endowment For the Arts Fellowship and is currently teaches at Stanford University.

From the little station house, they followed the road through snowy fields, before it entered a valley thick with pine. Milky layers of ice glinted on the branches, which clattered as the wind came through. Teardrops froze in the corners of Lucius’s eyes and on his lashes, and the shawl that wrapped his face grew thick with rime. Binding his reins about his good hand, he tried to brace his broken wrist, but the narrow road was hard as metal, and the horses slipped from time to time. When at last the pain grew unbearable, he called out for the hussar to stop.

He fumbled with his rucksack until he found the ampoules of cocaine and morphine. They had frozen, so he slipped them into his mouth to warm them. He injected the cocaine directly into his fracture, then paused, ready to inject the morphine, but stopped. No. Best to be sparing; he didn’t know how far they had to go.

The land rose, the valley steep but broad. Soon they reached a wooded pass. The road descended, crossed into another valley, and began to descend again. They passed the entrance to a village, marked by a painted sign with a primitive Death’s-Head and the words FLECKFIEBER!!!— typhus—and BEWARE SOLDIER! DO NOT ENTER HERE! DEATH AWAITS!!! in German, Polish, and what he assumed to be the same in Romanian, Ruthenian, and Hungarian.

The hussar crossed himself, and though they were far from the village entrance, he led his horse even farther away. As if something might burst out with fang and talon and chase them down.

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Lucius’s arm began to throb again. Again he called to the hussar to stop, uncapped the old needle, broke the morphine ampoule, and injected into his arm.

The forest thinned. They passed empty fields, now scarred by war. Bomb craters, abandoned bulwarks, trenches. From a tree, something was hanging: a body, now encased almost entirely in ice. At the far end of the field lay a dark pile of what seemed like a boulder field, but as they approached, Lucius saw that the boulders were frozen horses. There were perhaps fifty, half-covered in snow. Garish, dark-red flowers bloomed from their heads. In the shadows of the forest, he thought he saw others. The hussar slowed.

A scrap of livery fluttered lightly from one of the exposed saddles, the letters k.u.k. still visible.

Kaiserlich und königlich. Imperial and Royal. His army. Suddenly Lucius was afraid.

“Cossacks?”

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Shadows danced deep in the woods. He saw the horsemen, creatures of so many childhood dreams. Then nothing but the trees.

“Cossacks don’t shoot horses,” said the hussar, disdainfully, from behind his mask. “This is Austria in retreat.”

At first Lucius didn’t understand. But he was embarrassed to show his ignorance, and it was only as they rode on that he recalled the stories of surrender, the animals shot to keep them out of enemy hands.

It was close to dusk when they passed their first set of travelers, a refugee family leading a goat cart down the snowy road. There were four children, two on the cart, two walking, their faces swaddled like mummies, jackets stuffed with straw until it nearly burst their seams.

In Hungarian, the hussar commanded them to stop. He pointed to the cart and spoke. The woman protested. Lucius couldn’t understand the words, but it was clear what she was saying: nothing here, some old furniture, rags—that’s all. The hussar dismounted his horse and walked, somewhat stiffly, over to the cart, where he began to search. The woman followed him. “Nincs semmink!” she cried, both hands in prayer. Nincs semmink! Nincs semmink!” But by then the hussar had found what she was hiding. One by one, he drew them out: rabbits, twitching, eyes wide, breath steaming, kicking their long back legs against the air.

Cries rose from the swaddled faces of the children. The hussar offered Lucius a rabbit, holding out the steaming creature in his extended hand, like a priest before a sacrifice. Lucius shook his head, but the hussar threw it to him anyway, and he caught it with his good arm, against his chest. Then he hesitated. He wanted to return it to the family, but he could feel the hussar watching him through the thin slits in his leather mask.

The rabbit kicked as he slipped it inside his greatcoat. It wiggled out. He caught it by its leg and this time tucked it inside his shirt,against his skin,  where, out of terror or from some physiological change provoked by the change in temperature, it released a stream that trickled down his belly and his legs. Lucius could feel its heart thrumming against his skin. He did not understand why the hussar didn’t kill the rabbits there, but this choice, before the children, seemed almost kind.

He kept his eyes from the family as they rode on.

The hussar crossed himself, and though they were far from the village entrance, he led his horse even farther away. As if something might burst out with fang and talon and chase them down.”

They returned to the road. After another hour, the hussar stopped and dismounted slowly, even more stiffly than when he’d stopped before. He fumbled with his jacket and trousers, and stood as if he were trying to urinate. Lucius looked away to give him privacy, but the man still hadn’t moved after a minute. Now something seemed wrong.

Another minute, and Lucius heard him curse, then groan a little as if bearing down, before he rearranged himself and mounted his horse.

Close to evening, they entered an empty village, stopping to billet in an abandoned house. The walls were bare; the kitchen was empty, the cabinets open, the floor covered with broken plates. An icon of Saint Stanislaus of Poland lay in an open drawer, as if it had been hidden there and then discovered.

Poland, thought Lucius. Galicia. Somewhere, in the woods, they must have crossed the border. On a table, inexplicably, was a beautiful ceramic music box, which played an unfamiliar tune. The bed had been lanced open and emptied of its straw.

They kept the horses inside, in the dining room. Gathering bedstraw, tearing off the last remaining doors from the cabinet, the hussar lit a fire, killed and skinned the rabbits, and boiled them in a pot he carried on his horse. Without his mask, his face looked drawn and hollow now, and Lucius saw he ate only tiny bites. “Are you sick?” he asked at last. The man grunted, but didn’t reply. When they’d finished eating, they lay down, clothed, beneath a single blanket. Lucius remained awake. The anesthetic had begun to wear off, and his wrist had begun to throb again. Now he regretted his ambition to push on. How far was Lemnowice? He had enough cocaine for one more day. Constantly, he wiggled his numb fingers, worried again about a compression of the nerve. But the room was freezing—he could scarcely feel his fingers in either hand.

He was still awake when the hussar stirred, rose, and went to the wall to urinate. As before he remained like that a long time, perhaps five minutes, more, before he began to groan and then to strike himself, his thighs or lower abdomen or penis—Lucius couldn’t see, only that the man did so with increasing violence.

Lucius sat up. “Corporal?

The man stopped. His fists were balled. He lifted them high above his head and began to moan.

Corporal?” Lucius said again. Then, very tentatively, uttering the words for the first time in his life. “I am a doctor.”

There was silence. Cautiously the man appraised him from dark, sunken eyes above unshaven cheeks.

Then tentatively, he said: “It does not come out. It is stuck . . . It hurts, here . . .”

It took Lucius but a moment to put the signs together. In the textbooks there might be a dozen different causes for an obstruction, but on the Eastern Front, with its garrison towns lined with whorehouses, there was really only one explanation in an otherwise healthy man. Back in Kraków, the clinics cared for a steady flow of men receiving urethral dilatation for gonorrheal strictures. He had seen massive, stoic soldiers reduced to sobs.

Lucius said, “Tomorrow, at the hospital, they’ll take care of you.”

The man said, “Nothing comes out.”

Lucius said, “I understand. Tomorrow, we will reach the hospital . . .”

Nothing!

“I understand. I . . . ” He took a deep breath. “When did you last go?”

But the hussar didn’t answer. Instead, he turned, holding his penis in his open palm, as if to say to Lucius, Look. Lucius hesitated. Then, lighting a candle from his rucksack, he crouched before the hussar. Think. Remember the lectures on the anatomy of the bladder. Except he’d skipped them to work in Zimmer’s lab.

He told the man to bear down, and a single drop of urine appeared at the tip of his penis. Gently, Lucius palpated the man’s belly. It was tense, his bladder full. Once, chronic venereal disease was the kind of problem he might have joked about with Feuermann, hardly the glorious surgery he’d expected on the front. But now the possible consequences of an untreated obstruction ran through his mind. Did the bladder actually rupture? Or the ureters? Or did the kidneys shut down before anything tore?

“Tomorrow at the hospital . . . ,” Lucius began.

The man shook his head. “I can’t get back on the horse.” He bent over, pushing his fist so hard into his belly that Lucius was now certain something would burst.

Leaving me alone with a dying horseman in an abandoned village, he thought. He didn’t know where he was going, nor how to return to Nagybocskó.

The soldier said, “Every month, I go . . . they use a little rod . . .”

“I know,” said Lucius. “It is called a bougie. But I don’t have one.”

The two men looked around the room, eyes passing over the saint’s icon, the music box. Then the hussar said, “For my rifle, there is a rod assembly . . .”

Lucius felt his stomach turn. “I can’t. They use petroleum jelly . . . For the rod to advance, we need . . .”

But the man was rummaging through his saddlebags, returning with a three-piece collapsible brush, with one piece screwing into the other. It looked like a medieval torture implement. But the pieces without bristles were thin and smooth, and even tapered at their threaded ends. From the bag, the man removed a tube of gun oil.

Somewhere, in the woods, they must have crossed the border. On a table, inexplicably, was a beautiful ceramic music box, which played an unfamiliar tune. The bed had been lanced open and emptied of its straw.”

Lucius had two ampoules of morphine left, and he gave the hussar one, using the needle still dirty with his own blood. He told the man to lie down, and waited until the morphine began to set in. Then he squeezed rifle oil onto the rod. Again he tried to recall what he’d read in the textbook. If he remembered correctly, the urethral canal made right angle at the urethral sphincter. If he pushed too far, he could pierce through the wall of the canal. But if the stricture were closer, he might stand a chance. He took a deep breath. “Grab here,” he said, and had the hussar pull his penis straight. He placed the rod at the urethral opening and advanced it slowly in. The man tensed. Lucius stopped, now remembering that one of the risks of the procedure was opening a false passage. His left hand was trembling, and he braced it with his right. He found himself recalling how in Kraków, in the mess hall, he’d heard a pair of sappers talking about a certain kind of shaking that beset them as they gently wound the wires of their bombs. He advanced the rod farther, and then it reached resistance. He backed up, slipped it forward, again felt it stop. Then, with a push, past. Then the hussar roared, twisted away, leaving Lucius rod in hand, stumbling back, piss-sprayed as the man shattered a slat in the wall with his fist.

He’ll kill me, Lucius thought. But then the hussar began to laugh.

The next morning the hussar was in tremendous spirits.

He sang as he urinated in many directions. “Orvos!” he said, embracing Lucius as he half-spoke, half-sang something in Hungarian, none of which Lucius understood. Save orvos. Doctor. It was enough.

They set out. Their trail joined with a rutted, empty road that climbed steeply into the hills. Now the hussar seemed positively garrulous. He sang and whistled and drummed on his thighs. It was good Lucius was a doctor, he told him. Lots of patients. He made a sawing motion with his hand.

They stopped only for Lucius to inject more anesthetic into his wrist. By then the signs of war were gone, the forest clear. The only person they saw was an old man in the middle of a dark wood, rummaging through the snow. Again the hussar stopped. Lucius was afraid that he would rob this old man like he had robbed the others, but he only asked the way, and the old man pointed with a turnip as he leaned unsteadily on his stick.

Dusk was falling when they came over a low hill and at last found themselves before a village. It was tucked in a softly sloping valley, with two streets of houses descending from a single wooden church of rough-hewn logs. Above the church, the road kept rising. Below, the valley widened into snow-covered fields that flanked a frozen river. “Lemnowice,” said the hussar. They followed the road down to the fields and then up past the houses. They were low-ceilinged huts, made of wood, straw-thatched, with tiny windows, all covered with wooden shutters so that it was impossible to see inside. There were no chimneys. A pair of drays lay in the road, seemingly abandoned, half-buried in snow. There was a flutter over one of the rooftops, and a huge black crow took off into the sky.

There was not a soul in sight. He saw no garrison, no sign of the army at all, certainly nothing that could be a hospital. Perhaps it lay beyond the hill, he thought. Unless, this, too, had been a mistake. If after such a journey, he would have to turn around.

The hussar stopped before the church, motioning Lucius to descend. He obeyed, approached the door, and knocked. He waited. There was a narrow window in the door that reminded him of a castle arrow slit. The hussar told him to knock harder, and only then did he hear movement, the sound of footsteps. In the window, an eye appeared.

“Krzelewski,” said Lucius. “Medical lieutenant. Fourteenth Regiment, Third Army.”

Then a key in the lock, the clang of the mechanism. The door opened to reveal a nursing sister. She wore a stiff grey habit, and from her hand dangled a Mannlicher rifle, standard issue of the k.u.k.

“May I speak to the supervising physician?” he asked in German.

When she didn’t answer, he tried Polish.

“The doctor?” she replied, still staying back, in the shadows. “Didn’t you just say you’re him?”

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From The Winter Soldier. Used with permission of Little, Brown And Company Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Mason.




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