A Field Nurse’s Account During the Battle of Husiatyn Woods
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My name is Anya and I am 86 years old today.

I came to the states in 1921 from a war-torn homeland and I have not been back since. I pray that an entire ocean is enough distance to hide from my buried memories. That the things I have seen are forever trapped under that haunted place. And that the crate I remember so vividly has been swallowed in mud and time.

In 1917 I was working as a field nurse for the Russian provisional army at the time. We were deployed along the western half of Ukraine working our way towards the border. I had seen my fair share of wounds and death at just a fair age of 21. Back in those days you had to focus on the work. The patients always came in and out. Sometimes they got better. Sometimes they didn’t. But there was never an empty bed, and if there was, it was filled with a body before the mattress even got cold.

It was mid-summer then when the- Strange, as I call it, started happening. I managed a small triage tent outside the Husiatyn woods. Tall black pines surrounded us in the clearing we made for our little world. There was also the surgeon’s tent and a small abandoned farmhouse under guard where the German prisoners were kept. Some nights it felt like the pines would rise up and descend onto us like teeth, and the Earth would open like a maw to swallow us. In hindsight, this might have been prophecy.

The strange began one morning. Soldiers from the night before began walking out of the forest carrying their brothers to our tent. Typical wounds were the majority of what I saw, easily treatable with the supplies we had. However, one man was thrashing and gurgling. Horrible it was. At a glance, I was for certain he had rabies. It was an uncommon thing to see in the field, but it did happen from rat bites. But what struck me as odd was to see the grey foam not only coming out of his mouth, but also his eyes and nose. His head was so bloated I thought the flesh would have swallowed his ears.

My insides squirmed as the field surgeon called for my immediate assistance on this. I had to finish up a dressing on a leg and rushed over. Inside the surgeon’s tent was the thrashing man and three other soldiers holding him down. Grey foam was spitting everywhere as he suffocated. Surely, he couldn’t last much longer.

“Flip him over!” The surgeon barked at me. “Anya, forceps. The long ones.”

I nodded and pulled open a drawer to retrieve it. As they flipped him over, we could see the bullet wound in his back. A big gaping hole about the size of a child’s fist had punched right through. I was frozen. I had never seen someone with a wound that large and still have so much life left in them. It must’ve been an hour long walk from the front lines. He should have bled out long ago.

I snapped out of it when the surgeon grabbed the tool from my hand and went to work. I always admired him for his focus during stressful surgeries, but even I could tell the sweat along his neck was from nerves. After a few minutes he pulled a bullet out from the wound and placed it in the tray. It was a strange object made of an iridescent metal. It had slots carved into its surface. Maybe to deliver poison? It did not look like a bullet, nor did it look like it could be fired out from any rifle I’ve seen.

“Get him to triage! Bound him to a bed if you have to! Anya… morphine. Lots of it." I remember him saying.

Three soldiers were barely enough to hold the man down and still he howled and gurgled and sprayed his acrid foam all over us. I dared not to get any on my eyes or mouth as I injected him with morphine. It took many shots before his arms and legs finally lost strength. He laid there as what I can only think are his mucus glands effervescing the sick substance. By the time he settled down and the three men bound his arms and legs, I realized we had an audience. The remaining men in the tent were staring at us. Their mouths gawked in silence as cigarettes hung loose off their lips. That’s when I had to shut the curtain, for their sakes and mine.

Everyday since then, more and more strange injuries came in. Men with wounds so severe that they couldn’t possibly have survived them. A few soldiers were brought in without even clothes or skin. As if someone had cleanly flayed the tissues from muscle. We wasted so many bandages and dressings on them, nearly exhausting our supply. The nights were filled with horrifying screams. Sometimes a man’s voice. Sometimes not. I could see at night above the black pines, flashes of yellow as weapons fired towards the west. And also flashes of purple and greens and deep deep reds that seemed to hang in the air like a storm cloud.

“What is going on out there? What is happening to our boys?” I asked the surgeon and lieutenant who were also standing outside watching. They said nothing and went back inside.

The next morning it was decided to house all the special cases in the barn with the German prisoners, much to their protests. To be kept under guard both for our safety and theirs. One dead-eyed soldier during that same morning, stepped out of the woods carrying a wooden crate used to house artillery shells. He dropped it at the entrance of the clearing for someone to tend to, and without a word, headed back towards the front lines. The surgeon and lieutenant were too busy moving patients into the barn to notice.

I can still hear it today. It was so clear. It was weeping coming from inside the crate. But this crate was barely big enough for a child, let alone a grown man. To my regret, I opened and saw what was inside.

I couldn’t then and I can’t now. I wish I hadn’t opened it. But I did. I damn my eyes when I close them at night and still see it. ‘How could God let something like this happen?’ I think to myself sometimes. It was only for a moment, as my startled hand dropped the lid back down. All breath had escaped from me, so I couldn’t even scream. And inside, the muffled weeping grew louder. I closed the latch on the lid, locked it, and left it there. Yes, I left it in the mud and pine needles. I was not able to deal with it. I wanted to be far away from that place. I truly did wish the Earth would open up to swallow all this horror and make it all go away.

Thankfully my crying was interrupted by shouting. The German prisoners were suddenly having it out with the guards. There was barking back and forth, and guns drawn at them. I think they would have rather died than be kept in the same place as the “special” cases. One German threw a punch at the guard and he dropped his rifle. Before the prisoner had a chance to bend over and pick it up, I saw the lieutenant draw a pistol on him. I did not see the pistol itself, but I did see a bright pink flame burst forth like a fiery rod and penetrate the prisoner in the chest.

The surgeon quickly grabbed the lieutenant’s arm and screamed at him, “No! Not in the view of the men! Not here!” They stared at one another for the longest time before he finally put the weapon away. The other German prisoners fell in line after seeing what might happen to their fellow soldier. The limp body of the man still laid there. A pink flame still burning like a candle around the singed chest wound with a grotesque smile across his face- giggling and mumbling in his own tongue. Whatever he was saying, I could see the other prisoners turn pale from it.

The decision was made not long after to abandon our location and move everything eastward. Soldiers were packing up supplies onto trucks. The regular patients too. I could see the look of relief on their faces to be leaving this place. The surgeon and lieutenant both agreed to “dispose” of the rest of the patients. I remember the surgeon putting a hand on my shoulder. He sulked as he tried to make sense of the last few days before finally speaking. “There’s nothing we can do for them. We must give them back to God and hope he can bring them peace.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. But he didn’t answer and walked on to pack his own belongings. I heard a whistle as the lieutenant assembled several men to get into the barn and carry everyone out and into the forest. I watched as beds were walked out, each with patients bound to them. Each more horrific to look at than the last. It was well known that there was a crater not too far from the camp that some have used to dump refuse. I saw them do the same with these men. I don’t even know if I had tears left for them. They were men but they were also monsters. Bed after bed they tossed into the bottom of the crater. The foaming man, too drowned in his own fluids and morphine to notice. The skinless who were pleading not to be thrown in. And eventually the prisoner, who was still happily jabbering and still smoking from his wound before being tossed on top. All were fed into the hungry Earth. And with shovels, buried scoop by scoop until the sounds and cries and laughter were doused. They were still alive. All twenty-three of them. The chaplain was there to bless the grave and I was honestly grateful for that, as meaningless as it probably was. Reading last rites to things that can’t die.

I was the last to board a truck that day. I sat in the back as it was closed up. We carried what would fit and left the rest. As we drove away on the only road available, I spotted the crate still sitting in the mud! Still closed and latched shut. I had forgotten to tell anyone about it! I had forgotten to have it buried. It was left there and the last thing it remembers was my face. It has seen me, as I have seen it. Will it crawl out of that haunted place and find me? So much dread washed over me that I thought I’d drown in it. At sat with my head on my knees and wept. I did nothing but weep for the entire ride. After that I never returned. I finished my time with the war and left the continent as soon as I was able. I put as much distance as I could between that place and me. Between that thing and me.

I married and started a family. I have tried my hardest to replace those memories with happier ones. But even after sixty years, whenever I open a crate or box-

I can feel my heart leap into my throat.

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