The Last Time I Saw Paris
The sounds of gunfire and falling shells had started to fade for the evening, but the line of wounded coming in and going out, either patched as best as they could be or dead, seemed almost endless. The doctor was tired. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his wrist so as not to smear blood across his face and tried to recall the last time he had gotten more then a few forced hours of sleep. He had lost his watch a week ago anyway. It was cold in Russia. He did not like sleeping in the cold; for fear he would not awake in the morning.
One invalid out, another coming in. The two stretcher-bearers brought the wounded man suspended between them over to the doctor.
"Friedrichs..." the doctor barked to the head stretcher-bearer, "put him down, hurry."
The doctor stood poised and waiting as he took up the instrument of his orchestra, a battered pair of tiny forceps. His dark eyes were hidden behind rims of thin circular black frames. The sleeves of his tunic were rolled up and blood was wiped across his hastily thrown-on apron. He stared down the bridge of his slanted nose to the body on the stretcher. The doctor peeled back the layers of wool uniform and gauze, his mouth going thin upon what he saw.
"I gave him morphine already," Friedrichs spoke.
The doctor said, "Turn the music back on."
Time was short. Any other man with a wound like this might have been forced to wait, but this was a Hauptsturmführer. A very unlucky one at that, his life delicately placed in the doctor's hands. The sound of the invalid's laboured breaths stuck pins into the air of the room. What the doctor would have given to be back out on the front were he could do his assigned duty instead of being stuck back here behind the lines.
There was something beautiful about the lines of the human body as the doctor looked upon the one that lay on the table in front of him. The sinews akin to a strung instrument were no longer taut as the effects of the morphine and anesthesia seeped into the veins. The fingers that had once shook so violently were calm and the mouth that had quivered so earnestly to scream in pain was silent. The kerosene lamp burned brightly in the darkness. The poor officer on the stretcher probably had not seen a razor in some time.
"I said turn the music on!" Drown it out, drown out the breathing sounds. Drown out the moaning of the wounded and the percussion of the fading battle.
"The Last Time I Saw Paris" issued softly from the mouth of the victrola's horn, the massive crack running jagged lines through the instrument muffled and distorted the sound. The doctor was not even the true owner of the player. He had plundered it from a town almost half a year ago before his unit had burned it to the ground. While others had pillaged valuable accessories and shipped home delicate porcelains, he had chosen to take the music player. In retrospect, perhaps it would have been smarter to have stolen something of greater value.
Even though the doctor could not understand the words of the song, he felt the music staying with him. The Last Time I Saw Paris. Die Letze Zeit Sahe Ich Paris. Beyond the title, the words were cold, holding no meaning as they passed over his ears with the whine of the band's horn section. The churning mess of notes and medical treatments swirled through his head as he bent over the invalid, eyes squinting. There was a bullet hole in the middle of the man's torso.
The doctor had never been to Paris. He had been in the southern part of the country, but never the capital. Some disconnect festered within him that the mythical city of lights did not appeal to him for one reason or another.
Carefully, so very carefully, he put the forceps into the open wound and felt his shoulders begin to shudder when the metal touched delicate flesh. There was still a bullet lodged within the officer that needed to come out. Despite how tired he was, the doctor worked onward. The twitch that had come to his eye became nothing more then a nuisance, a wayward cymbal fluttering against the beat of the music, instead of a sign that he needed rest. He blinked his eyes harshly behind his glasses and forced himself to focus, a thin film of sweat coming to his forehead.
This invalid was important.
He could not be lost.
The doctor felt the grind of the tips of the forceps against the foreign object and tilted his hand to grab a hold of it. The chorus was almost coming; he could tell by the way the music shifted and swelled.
"Get more gauze and be ready," he spoke flatly to Friedrichs.
With a shift of his hand, the doctor dragged the bullet as carefully as he could from the officer lying in front of him. The blood bubbled up behind it just like he expected, but the great shudder that the invalid's body gave under his hands he did not expect. Almost jerking his fingers back in surprise, his senses were jarred free of the lulling safety of the music. His ears were suddenly filled with the sound of air moving as though drawn earnestly through the narrow opening of a straw.
"No," The doctor cried.
The officer's breathe instantly grew cruelly ragged, blood gurgling up and coming into his mouth. The doctor grit his teeth, and let the forceps drop from his grasp. He drove the heel of his hand over the opening the bullet had left behind.
The blood pounding in his ears forced the music into a distorted and grotesque creature that drove itself against him. Frantic, he grasped around for anything that would stop the hissing sound coming from the officer. Bandages, a tourniquet, gauze, something just to make it stop. The trickle of red liquid oozed between his fingers.
He kept searching until he felt a pair of hands grab his shoulders and he was turned to see the face of Friedrichs.
"Sani, enough." He said, "He's gone."
Before the doctor had time to respond, the invalid officer was already being removed from the room to make way for another who needed help. How could a man who had been breathing mere moments before suddenly go silent and cold. Friedrichs was already breaking the dog tag. It was his mistake that had caused this officer's death and it appeared that only the doctor realized it. To everyone else, it was just another name in a letter to send home to a worried relative.
The doctor, as though compelled against his will, reached for the dead man's wrist as he was carried past him. He slipped the watch off as he watched the body being toted away to be dealt with by the graveyard unit. The record was caught and the needle scratching the grooves across its surface echoed out the same phrase again and again.
The Last... The Last... The last... the last