A Piece of Work
(At First Manassas)

by Peter Parsons

Outside the stone building, bullets ripped into tree trunks. Larger shells carved out vacuums in the air behind them, knocking off tree limbs or chunks of building. Occasionally we heard yells and screams from people and animals. Horses frantic with fear, their big eyes wide and their lovely intelligent foreheads lifting high, received the dull thud of shrapnel. Stricken cows brayed below us in the valley. 

Medics kept a constant flow of wounded into our building. My father, Dr. Ernest LaFon, was red-eyed from lack of sleep and overwork. The wounded soldiers began to pile up next to the wooden kitchen table he operated on. Most of his surgical tools had gone dull and dirty several days ago, and the two other doctors, Woodstoke and Harrington, had been killed early in the battle.

Dr. LaFon, sir, I have bad news for you, sir, said a grimy, blood-covered medic. There’s no such thing, said the doctor, eternally positive, clenching a soggy cigar stub between his molars.

Sir, we have your wife here. She’s taken a shell in the leg, above the knee. It looks bad, sir.

My wife? June? 

Yessir. She was taking water to the boys in the second file, over by the rocky rise. Must have been a ricochet. 

They put my mother on the kitchen table where Dad examined her leg, his fingers in the wound seeing what his eyes could not. She was unconscious, but her color was not bad as field medics had gotten to her quickly and prevented blood loss with a rope tourniquet. One of her arms kept flopping down off the edge of the table. 

Amputation, said Dad. 

Immediately I was handing him the four-inch flap knife, the Liston amputation knife, the operating scalpel, artery forceps, tendon knife. 

Damn, he said. Goddamn. Nothing’s sharp. He pulled a pocket knife out of his trousers and spat on the blade. This’ll have to do, he said, and went to work with it until he needed the saws. 

The sharpest thing we had for this kind of business was the Gigli’s wire saw, but he couldn’t use it for the heavier bone-cutting. He stared at our old Satterlee eight-incher until I thought he was going to cry, but he set to and the noise of the grinding filled the entire room. 

Finally he said, I want the Bergmann, which meant he needed the beautiful bronze-headed mallet and a bone chisel. Something in there won’t give way, he said. 

Then it was time for some fine snipping, for the tendon knives, the raspatories, the bone file. When he asked for the Housley double curved, the bone-cutting forceps, I knew we were close to sewing things up and we would have to remove all the retractors and hemostatic forceps and there would be blood again when we loosened the tourniquet. 

I could smell the bone dust as it had mingled with the blood and gristle and would be glad to be covering up the stump. 

Dad asked for gunpowder but there was none at hand. He screamed, What?! In this place, this goddamn hellhole and no brimstone? Somebody goddamn get some and hurry up about it.

A young soldier gave him a pouch containing about a handful. 

Watch this, said Dad. He splashed the gunpowder onto her open wound like sprinkling pepper onto a chop, then he put a match to it and we all jumped back as it flared up and smoked. It smelled like a steak cooking in someone’s kitchen and we were surprised by that. 

That should make vegetarians out of you, said Dad. Or cannibals.

When the smoke cleared, Dad was already sewing the flaps into place. He was using his favorite finishing instrument, Young’s Boomerang, for the deep sutures, along with our best twisted silk number four. Like everything else in here, this should be something else, he said, but I think this would hold a raging elephant in a thunderstorm.

When Dad finished, Mom’s stump looked like a quilt, neat and tidy with fine stitching along the edges, but only showing on the back side. The front showed a smooth, conical expanse of skin. 

That will wedge down into a wooden leg someday, said Dad, snipping away a few stray pieces of flesh and thread and then stepping back. 

Quite a piece of work, he said. 

Good job, one of the medics commented. 

I mean my wife, said Dad. Take good care of her, he said. She’s a miracle of a woman. Let me know the minute she wakes up. And make sure she has a drop of whiskey at hand when she does. 

They took Mom out on a stretcher and Dad slumped onto a stool. He held his head in both his bloody hands. Mom’s leg lay at his feet like something discarded in a butcher’s shop. He picked it up, held it in front of him and began talking to it. 

She’ll be good as new, he whispered. Then, regaining voice, he told me to save the leg. 

Save the leg? I said. 

In a jar, he said. One day she’ll want to see it.

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