A Storyby Anthony Marra
After her sister, Natasha, died, Sonja began sleeping in the hospital. She returned home to wash her clothes a few days a month, but those days became fewer and fewer. No reason to return, no need to wash her clothes. She only wears hospital scrubs anyway.
She wakes on a cot in the trauma unit. She sleeps there intentionally, in anticipation of the next critical patient. Some days, roused by the shuffle of footsteps, the cries of family members, she stands and a body takes her place on the cot and she works on resuscitation, knowing she is awake because she could dream nothing like this.
“A man is waiting here to see you,” a nurse says. Sonja, still on the cot, rubs the weariness from her eyes.
The nurse hesitates. “He’s right out here.”
A minute later in the hallway the man introduces himself. “My name is Akhmed.” He speaks Russian without an accent, but by now Sonja feels more comfortable conversing in Chechen. A short beard descends from Akhmed’s face. For a moment she thinks he’s a religious man, then remembers that most men have grown their beards out. Few have shaving cream, fewer have mirrors. The war has made the country’s cheeks and chins devout.
He gestures to a small girl, no older than eight, standing beside him. “My wife and I cannot care for her,” Akhmed says. “You must take her.”
“This isn’t an orphanage.”
“There are no orphanages.”
The request is not uncommon. The hospital receives humanitarian aid, has food and clean water. Most important, it tends to the injured regardless of ethnicity or military affiliation, making the hospital one of the few larger buildings left untargeted by either side in the war. Newly injured arrive each day, too many to care for. Sonja shakes her head. Too many dying; she cannot be expected to care for the living as well.
“Her father was taken by the rebels on Saturday. On Sunday the army came and took her mother.”
Sonja looks at the wall calendar, as if a date could make sense of the times. “Today is Monday,” she says.
Akhmed glowers. Sonja often sees defiance from rebels and occasionally from soldiers, but rarely from civilians.
“I can’t,” she says, but her voice falters, her justification failing.
“I was a medical student before the war,” Akhmed says, switching to Chechen. “In my final year. I will work here until a home is found for the girl.”
Sonja surveys the corridor: a handful of patients, no doctors. Those with money, with advanced degrees and the foresight to flee the country, have done so.
“Parents decide which of their children they can afford to feed on which days. No one will take this girl,” Sonja says.
“Then I will keep working.”
“Does she speak?” Sonja looks to the girl. “What’s your name?”
“Havaa,” Akhmed answers.
Six months earlier Sonja’s sister, Natasha, was repatriated from Italy. When Sonja heard the knock and opened the door, she couldn’t believe how healthy her sister looked. She hugged her sister, joked about the padding on her hips. Whatever horrors Natasha had experienced in the West, she’d put fat around her waist.
“I am home,” Natasha said, holding the hug longer than Sonja thought necessary. They ate dinner before the sun went down, potatoes boiled over the furnace. The army had cut the electric lines four years earlier. They had never been repaired. Sonja showed her sister to the spare room by candlelight, gestured to the bed. “This is the place you sleep, Natasha.”
They spent the week in a state of heightened civility. No prying questions. All talk was small. What Sonja noticed, she did not comment on. A bottle of Ribavirin antiviral pills on the bathroom sink. Cigarette burns on Natasha’s shoulders. Sonja worked on surgeries, and Natasha worked on sleeping. Sonja brought food home from the hospital, and Natasha ate it. Sonja started the fire in the morning, and Natasha slept. There were mornings, and there were nights. This is life, Sonja thought.
Akhmed is true to his word. Five minutes after Sonja accepts the girl, he is washed and suited in scrubs. Sonja takes him on a tour of the hospital. All but two wings are closed for lack of staff. She shows him the cardiology, internal medicine, and endocrinology wards. A layer of dust covers the floors, their footprints leaving a trail. Sonja thinks of the moon landing, how she saw the footage for the first time when she arrived in London.
“Where is everything?” Akhmed asks. Beds, sheets, hypodermics, disposable gowns, surgical tape, film dressing, thermometers, IV bags, forceps—any item of practical medical use is gone. Empty cabinets, open drawers, locked rooms, closed blinds, taped-over windowpanes, the stale air remain.
“The trauma and maternity wards. And we’re struggling to keep them both open.”
Akhmed runs his fingers through his beard. “Trauma, that’s obvious. You have to keep trauma open. But maternity?”
Sonja’s laugh rings down the empty hall. “I know. It’s funny, isn’t it? Everyone is either fucking or dying.”
“No.” Akhmed shakes his head, and Sonja wonders if he’s offended by her profanity. “They are coming into the world, and they are leaving the world and it’s happening here.”
Sonja nods, wonders if Akhmed is religious after all.