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Little Sister

My first duty was to gather up
amputated limbs in the kitchen. I was fourteen.
I trembled, clutching them to my breast.
What is this place? Who have I become?
Last fall our wheelbarrow held potatoes.

July 1, 1888, I see men returning
to walk the battlefield. Twenty-five years ago
today General Reynolds commandeered
my grandmother's house in Gettysburg,
where I had lived since my widowed father fell
in the Battle of Malvern Hill. "Sophia Coffey,
will you stay as a nurse's aide?" he had asked,
and "Little Sister of Mercy" I became.

Burying those limbs in tall weeds, I found
a soldier, 11th Alabama, unconscious. His body
torn by canister shot, a fragment in one lung.
Where is God's mercy, I almost said aloud,
when a man, blue uniform or butternut,
can drown in his own blood? All night
I kept him seated upright by embracing him.
We saved him, our only wounded Confederate,
though he lost a hand and an eye.
While I changed his dressings and fed him,
he talked about his daughter Lily, almost my age.
I heard the nurses say he would go under guard
to Point Lookout Prison, a death camp;
and what I did then I do not repent of.
Though I had heard the sermons, Divine Providence
on our side, I smuggled that man my father's clothes.
At first he wept and would not accept them,
but one night he kissed my forehead and walked away.

This morning in Gettysburg I saw a man
with a leg of his pants pinned up and a port-wine
birthmark on his forehead. Unmistakable.
William Breitbach, the 94th New York.
He did not know me and I said nothing,
after thirty years the child being so well hidden
in the schoolmarm. I remember how he lay
delirious on the parlor carpet's floral design,
awaiting surgery because his whole right side
had taken grape shot in the Wheat Field.
As I knelt beside him tightening a tourniquet
he picked up a scalpel from the floor
and began stabbing himself. I caught his wrist
but took the blade's point in my palm.
The room darkened and my grandmother's
statues of saints faded though I did not faint.
William's eyes opened. "Little Sister,
remember how we camped out and built fires
and one time a pine cone exploded
and scarred your arm? Oh, you were brave."
He howled and wept till the morphine held.
I answered, "Yes, and I love you, dear brother"
over someone else in the crowded house crying,
"God is not here. God is not here."

I live alone in these rooms.

Thomas Reiter

The Sewanee Review

Spring 2014

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