Buna was sick again. She vomited into the little bucket by her bed, retching out a thin stream of yellow bile. Her stomach was empty and her insides felt like they had been wrung dry. She managed to put the pail down without spilling it. Her head fell back into the gray, stiff pillow. Every noise, sight, and smell in the ward grated on her nerves. The shoes of the nurses on their morning rounds clicked painfully. The sound of the patient breathing in the next bed raked her ears. The smell of the disinfectant in the ward and the smell of her own vomit oppressed her.
Buna was sick, but her head was clearer since her conversation with Dr. Semonova. Now, the facts of her situation were becoming depressingly clear. She knew where she was, although she hadn’t been to this hospital. About a year ago, she was in a similar ward, in the south of the city. Emin had eventually found her there, after he had called all the hospitals around the city. Maybe he would find her again. Maybe not. The thought tore at her like a twisting knife. She knew it would be better if he did not find her, if he just forgot her. Emin was far too decent for her. Better that he just get on with his life. They had tried, but something wasn’t right, because she had failed again. She would always fail.
While Buna was a proud woman, reticent about expressing any tenderness, in her weakened condition she felt tears well up inside. The feeling, so unfamiliar, frightened her. Her chest began to heave as she began to sob softly, turning her face into the gray, stiff pillow.
Only a couple of nurses worked this ward in these early morning hours, when the sun began to creep over the factory next door and illuminate the hall for all too brief a spell. And the sorrow of one more patient was hardly noteworthy in any case. Everybody had problems. But on this morning, Dr. Semonova herself was in the ward. She had slept poorly the night before, and sometimes a visit to the hospital wards was oddly soothing, reminding herself of other people’s problems. Her conversation with Burgar the day before still rankled her, and she vacillated between righteous indignation, anxiety, and fatigue.
Of course, she was indignant to be commanded by such an incompetent idiot to act as yet another soldier in the propaganda army of the president. And she was anxious, because she was all too aware of her own tenuous position. Her long tenure in the hospital meant nothing. A talented and highly respected surgeon lost his job in the spring, all because of some silly argument at a party. He made some intemperate remarks about the president’s father to a government official, and the next day he was fired. The doctor was fortunate, because he had relatives abroad, and he was able to leave the country quickly. Otherwise, more trouble would probably have followed. But Dr. Semonova had no one. Her work was her life. But on this morning, she felt particularly fatigued. She was tired of an endless struggle. For a time, she had hope that her new nation would re-build itself, that the people of the country might make some social or material progress. But the signs now seemed to point in the opposite direction, of a nation becoming more servile, more craven, more stupid.
Preoccupied with her thoughts, Dr. Semonova mechanically paced the aisles of the ward, arriving finally at the bed where Buna lay crying. Dr. Semonova remembered her with a twinge of disgust, and for a moment even felt a perverse pleasure in seeing her cry. Yes, you should cry. This is what your fun gets you – a lonely bed here, where you can cry your lonely heart out. But Dr. Semonova couldn’t enjoy her self-righteousness for long. Buna’s sobs were too bitter. She sat down on the narrow bed and touched Buna’s shoulder.
“There, there, dear. It’s alright. You’ll be feeling better soon.”
Saying such kind words felt odd in her throat, but she found herself saying them anyway. Buna stopped sobbing so loudly, but otherwise didn’t acknowledge the presence of the doctor on her bed. And Dr. Semonova just sat there, watching the morning sunlight seep into the ward, her hand on Buna’s shoulder.
As she gazed at the room, a sudden movement caught her eye. A rat. Again. That hole above the nurses’ table had been filled only two months ago, but the rodents had again gnawed and clawed an opening. From there, they could easily jump onto the ancient curtain, scamper down and retrieve any food patients left by their beds. And the rat gazed at her with disconcerting security and confidence. He could never be eradicated. This was his home. Dr. Semonova realized this fact, but she also had a flash of insight. The rat hole was the perfect place for the poster of Heymar Alidev. He would cover up the rat hole at least. With any luck, the rats would chew a hole into the portrait itself.
Buna stirred. She turned and saw the mean doctor sitting next to her. Buna felt the reflexive desire to be angry at the doctor, but she was too tired, too sick.
“Water?” she asked.
Dr. Semonova turned to look at the poor woman. Her eyes were very bloodshot. Her skin was pale and clammy. She was going through the worst of withdrawal from alcohol, but she would probably survive this time. Without a word, Dr. Semonova rose from the bed. She poured a glass of water for Buna at the cracked porcelain sink at the far end of the ward and brought it back to her.
“Here,” said Dr. Semonova.
Buna took the glass with both hands, raising it to her lips and drinking it cautiously. She felt a little liquid go down her throat and then handed the glass back to Dr. Semonova. She fell back on the bed, exhausted and nauseated by her efforts.
“I’m sorry,” Buna said.
She was, indeed, sorry but not for anything in particular. She was sorry for everything. For getting sick. For getting drunk. Sorry for bothering Dr. Semonova. Sorry for hurting her husband. Buna felt the deep regret and shame peculiar to a person recovering from a very long and serious spell of drinking.
“Yes, I know.”
Dr. Semonova took Buna’s cool and damp hand and gave it a little squeeze.
“You’ll be feeling better soon.”
The doctor looked at her in surprise. She really had assumed that all of this woman’s family life was a fantasy. But perhaps Buna actually did have someone who cared for her. In a strange way, the doctor felt a momentary twinge of jealousy.
“Your husband? Where is he?”
But Buna had already regretted her question, remembering her earlier stoic resolve. Better for her to die alone, to let Emin be. She could not bear to have him see her like this again.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know,” she said, lapsing into quiet sobs again.
Dr. Semonova sat with her, listening to Buna cry softly. After a few minutes, one of the nurses came over to the two women. It was highly unusual for the doctor to hold anyone’s hand.
“Is anything the matter?” the nurse asked.
“No, nothing,” replied the doctor, carefully putting Buna’s hand on the thin brown blanket.
“Nothing unusual. But keep an eye on her. She’ll want some food by the end of the day. Not much. Just a little soup.”
The doctor rose and glanced at her watch. She had to return to the office to finish a report to the health committee. And she would write a memo to Burgar, to inform him about the location for the new portrait in the ward.
The Case for Cosmic Modesty
6 hours ago