Normally I'd let this story sit for days, or months, but this must be one of the first chapters I ever wrote, even before I was sure I'd share it, and I'm ready to call this piece finished. To all of you who have read, reviewed, followed, favourited and generally braved this story, many times thank you. I know it hasn't always been easy reading, but I've loved having you along for the ride.


Beware of heliotrope cyanosis Faith wrote to the girls at Swallowgate, and then wondered if they knew what it meant. She must have wondered aloud, because Lili said, 'They'll know if they've seen it' and suddenly Faith hoped fervently that they didn't –wouldn't –know, because if they did then they knew the horrors that preceded it. No, she preferred to imagine them reading this letter and asking equal parts amused and exasperated, Why can't Faith write letters in English? She could bear that. The thought that they had witnessed their own private Gethsemanes of blue and blood –that was unthinkable. She almost struck it out, and yet, it was better than some of the alternatives. Beware heliotrope cyanosis.

It had started like especially virulent flu, all the usual symptoms. That was before heliotrope cyanosis, back when people were still mostly recovering from it. Spring, Faith thought, that was in the spring; she knew this because the lavender was in bloom, such a pretty shade of purple, such a striking and unexpected burst of colour in a world that had grown small and drab. She used to pluck sprigs of it and carry them in her sleeve pocket to rub on her hands in-between patients, so that she wouldn't go to them smelling of fever and carbolic lotion, she had said when Dr. Christopherson asked.

It was autumn now, the lavender long gone, though she still had a stash of it, dried and preserved in a hastily made pillow. She dipped into it as needed to expunge the fever-sickness-and-lotion smell of her work. It had no colour, but that didn't matter, it was the scent she was after, clean and fresh. Besides, she could still picture it to the shade as she drifted off to sleep. Often she did.

They had run out of coffins. That was today's revelation. They had run out of coffins and the dead were to be laid on cedar planks along the halls of the morgue; this instruction re-laid grimly by Dr. Christopherson over the body of Lietenant Matthews, blood still seeping from his right ear, having missed the memo that the rest of his body had given up the battle. Faith nodded and moved down the row to Private Gregory. He was breathing so heavily she could hear the mucous rale even without putting her ear to his chest. Nothing to do about the mucous rale, but she changed the cold compress on his forehead where it had become fever-warm. If she could starve off the fever in Gregory then perhaps he would be spared the blossoming of damask roses on the cheeks, the blue skin. In a season where the dead were like the descendants of Abraham and more numerous than the stars, that would be a small but decisive victory. Gregory said something that might have been English, but was rendered incomprehensible by the fever-dream of the moment. And then he began to bleed at the mouth and the breath Faith had been inhaling came out in a premature swoosh of frustration. The blood foamed and bubbled, and Faith swept it away with the corner of an exhausted cloth. Someone –Lili she thought –put a hand to her shoulder. You can't do anything now. No, but she could bear witness. Someone, after all, owed Gregory's family an account of his death. She watched the death-roses blossom on his face and was ambushed suddenly by a story Jem had once told her at the height of his preoccupation with the Indian people. It had been years ago, and of course the conversational track that had lead them there was now lost in the quagmires of time, but she could still recall the awe in his voice as he told her of the tradition of the death song, sung by the braves as they died. Sometimes these were sung in feats of defiance, inspired by horror and tribulation, sometimes subdued and quiet on the last of their breath. When you couldn't sing your own death song, Faith recalled him saying, it was sung for you. Well, she could do that for Gregory, could take the story of his death and his bravery forward with her into whatever world was coming. Someone had to.

It took mere hours, the roses darkening almost to black on his cheeks where they stood out like cankers against the china-blue of his skin. He had been porcelain-white once and frosted with cold, but even then he had looked alive. Faith ground a bit of lavender between thumb and forefinger, scored her palms with it and scattered the remnants over his weakened chest.

'A reminder of spring for you,' she said, and walked down the row.

New patients had come in, she discovered, and were now lying on hastily-made palettes on the floor, placed in-between the cots. She had to walk along the ends of the beds to avoid stepping on them, and it occurred to Faith to wonder how long it would be before even that sliver of space too was yielded up to the dying.

'A story as old as time, almost,' said Dr. Christopherson, recalling her, 'no room at the inn.'

'Wouldn't be much point even if there was,' said Faith, 'packed like sardines –the doctors will be coming down with it next.' Because of course, she thought as she accepted his smile and the fresh washcloth to go with the new patient, they were talking about the hospitals. There had never been any doubt. It had only been a matter of time before word went out, we have no room, there is no space left. She thought of the froth and foam, the waste of the fever's last stages and felt certain they would all have died of it months ago themselves but for the fact they were still operating from a tent on the fringes of civilization, the fresh air creeping under the canvas to dilute the stifling combination of fever, waste, and summer heat. Elsewhere she knew fresh air was discouraged, Stay indoors having become the order of the day. Faith thought whoever had issued this edict had never seen death face to face, because so far as she was concerned the air admitted by the crevices of the canvas tent smelled of the longevity and tenacity of life, of the fireweed and garlic mustard, of mulching leaves, wet and musty with decomposition, the dying gasp of the lilacs. She breathed deeply through her nose and caught a hint of the lavender in her pocket over the blood-and-waste smell that hovered over her patient. No, a person could choke on sickness just as surely as they could on mustard gas, and from the sluggish sound of Lieutenant McDowell's breathing, he knew it to.

Under her fingers McDowell's body spasmed again, blood weeping gently from the corner of his mouth. It looked like a stray thread someone had forgotten to cut at the seam between lip and skin. She brought the washcloth back and daubed it away. Good as new.

He was the colour of spoiled milk by the evening, a blue so delicate it looked almost white in the moonlight.

'If there are no coffins,' said Faith as she dressed him for burial, 'what are we to do with the bodies?'

'We bury them as we can,' said Dr. Christopherson. 'I'm sorry, it's not really –'

'A lass's work. I know. But it's not really a doctor's work either. Ideally they die cleanly, with family around them for comfort and you don't have it on your conscience that your best effort wasn't enough.'

Dr. Christopherson clapped a hand onto her shoulder and gave it a sympathetic squeeze. 'We'll make a doctor of you yet,' he said.

They dug the grave deep because the dead were legion. It was heavy work and it split Faith's hands open in places she hadn't realised were vulnerable, exhausted muscles she had previously seen only under the operating knife. When she crushed a sprig of lavender against her hands to remove the smell of death and burial, the granules stung her raw skin. Still, they managed. Then Lili complained of cold.

'That happens sometimes,' said Dr. Christopherson, 'after you've been doing warm work in the cool of the evening a long time.'

'He's not wrong,' said Faith, trying to match his lightness. She had seen Jem slave away over chores in the sun before now, splitting the wood for a campfire, or gamely helping Miller Douglas to build hayricks in the August sun, often stripped down to his trousers in warm weather, his body beaded with sweat. This wasn't like that; Lili hugged her arms tight to her torso, eyes glassy in the moonlight and they all three chose to take this double diagnosis as Gospel, even though of course it wasn't. When the cold turned into chills, Faith gave Lili her blanket ('I don't need it, you do') and made no mention of the mugginess of the evening.

'It will pass,' said Faith in the morning when Lili complained of a headache. They were severely short of doctors by then, but no one pressed her into service. Instead, Faith brewed her a cup of tea made from feverfew and willow bark feeling ridiculously superstitious. It didn't stop her sending a prayer up on the wing of an ascending lark for the stuff's efficacy though, because so far she had still been denied that small victory against the flu. Though of course, Lili only had a headache.

It had blossomed into full-fledged fever by the evening, and Faith lost sleep hunting out what blankets hadn't been burnt as carriers of the sickness in an effort to sweat it out of her. Dr Christopherson found her among the linens, his own blanket draped over his arms.

'It's Indian summer,' he said, 'I'll do fine without it.' Faith wanted to cry. Instead she let him pull her tightly into a hug, breathing in the sunlight and wool smell of him that was so refreshing after the close-clinging smell of the fever and alcoholic rinse.

'Nothing so frustrating as uselessness,' he said sympathetically, smoothing her hair. 'And God knows this illness has made the lot of us damn near redundant.'

Faith waited for him to apologise for the oversight of swearing in front of one of his girls and when it didn't come she wanted to weep all over again for the loss of the old-world idealist whose stubborn chivalry had seen her through so much.

'What do I do?' asked Faith, tilting her head to look up at him. She was trying to catch a glimpse of his old self, of the man who said over the operating table It's not really a lass's work as she handed him cauterising irons and bone saws. She found it in his eyes, blue as scilla and level as they gazed down at her. He gave her shoulders another squeeze for good measure.

'What you can,' said Dr. Christopherson. 'You do what you can. What you must.'

Sometime towards dawn the blood began to bubble at Lili's mouth, and Faith blotted it away before it could come to full flower. She tried to sit Lili up, worried she would choke on the blood, but of course she was too crippled with illness to manage it. She shrivelled under the blankets and clutched at Faith's hand with terrifying tenacity.

'Promise me something?' said Lili from the depths of her blankets.

'Anything.' It was a powerful promise to make, a terrible one.

'Don't be a martyr to me. If the blue death comes let me die of it alone.'

'I can't do that.'

'You must. You promised anything. One of us must keep the memory alive.'

Memory of what? Faith wondered as the sun streaked grimly over the horizon. Of the blood, the mud, the agony of the men she had nursed? Or of the pointlessness of the flu, the bodies unrecognisable in their death-throe blueness, lying out on the floor because they had run out of coffins and the hospitals were overflowing? Perhaps it wouldn't come to that though. Perhaps Lili would overcome whatever the virulent virus was and they would have this in common, an especially gruesome Do you remember to reminisce over in after years. She was still cherishing a hope of that one small victory. I did not, Faith argued with her God in the dark hour before dawn, come all this way to watch men and boys and nurses die of some idiotic flu. It wasn't idiotic though, and in calmer moments, Faith caught glimpses of what she thought must be pneumonia, because it fit with her memories of the wracking strain of it little Carl had suffered all those years ago from sitting out in the Methodist graveyard overnight. But to say that aloud was to give Lili up to the dead, and she couldn't do that.

It got into Lili's lungs, of course. Faith had known it would from the moment the blood bloomed at her mouth. She suspected they both had. At first it was only a shadow, a stutter in her breathing like a leaf on the wind, and Faith had to press her ear to Lili's chest to hear it. But then it rose, a skeletal rattle that seeped into her breathing, made it slow and heavy as molasses.

Then it came, creeping with a cat's grace, a beautiful colouration, the very colour of lavender. Lili wore it beautifully.

'Heliotrope cyanosis,' said Dr. Christopherson for all of them, although it didn't matter; Lili was beyond understanding and they didn't need the telling. 'An especially virulent strain. You'll want to stay of course.'

'I promised,' said Faith. 'I promised her anything –promised I wouldn't.'

'Brave, clever girl,' he said. 'The world can't afford to lose you to influenza. Much too much work still to do, lives to save.'

'It isn't really a lass's work though,' said Faith, striving to smile for them both. For all her sins she had never been one to break a promise. She thought this one to Lili might just be the first.

'No,' said Dr. Christopherson, 'it's not. But it's a doctor's work, and unless I'm very much mistaken, you are a doctor.'

Fin.


Well, there you are - the end I could never take back once I'd seen it, and that catapulted me into what became Love, Laughter and Tenderness. Thank you again for reading. I can't tell you what it's meant having you follow me along through gangrene and flies and all manner of horrors. I'll try and make the next story lighter, shall I?