A Fierce Radiance

by Lauren Belfer

22 July 2010

"... the man on the stretcher was dying. His lips were blue from lack of oxygen. His cheeks were hollow, his skin leathery and tight against his bones. His eyes were open but unfocused, like the glass eyes in a box at a doll factory she’d once photographed."
Image from The Army Nurse (1945) 

Excerpted from Chapter 1, A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer Copyright © 2010 Lauren Belfer. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Wednesday Morning, December 10, 1941
The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, New York City

Claire Shipley was no doctor, but even she could see that the man on the stretcher was dying. His lips were blue from lack of oxygen. His cheeks were hollow, his skin leathery and tight against his bones. His eyes were open but unfocused, like the glass eyes in a box at a doll factory she’d once photographed. Although his hair was full and dark brown, not gray, Claire pegged him at over eighty. His head swayed from side to side as the orderlies slid the stretcher out of the ambulance and onto the gurney. Beneath the once-white blanket, his right leg was grotesquely swollen.

Making a split-second appraisal of the scene, guided by intuition, Claire crouched and pivoted until she found the best angle. Using the 35 mm lens, she stopped down on the Leica to increase the depth of field. She took a quick series of photos, bracketing to guarantee the exposure: the patient in profile and a half-dozen nurses, doctors, and orderlies gathered around him, like a group portrait by Rembrandt, their faces saying their thoughts. They knew he was dying, too. Out here in the cold without their coats on, with the man looking dead already and nobody else nearby but Claire, they dispensed with their usual cheery and encouraging expressions.

cover art

A Fierce Radiance

Lauren Belfer

US: Jun 2010

The group proceeded into the hospital. Claire followed, the others oblivious to her. She was like a spy, paid to fit in, to hide in plain sight, her identity and her loyalties concealed. Her ability to hide in plain sight was a paradox, even to herself, because she was physically striking. Had the others taken the time to notice her, they would have seen a thirty-six-year-old woman filled with the confidence and glamour of success, tall, slender, strong, her arms and shoulders shaped from carrying heavy photographic equipment. Her thick dark hair fell in waves to her shoulders. Her face was broad, her features well defined. She wore her usual winter uniform of loose navy blue trousers, cashmere sweater over silk blouse, and a beige fleece-lined jacket with eight pockets. It was a hunter’s jacket, and she’d ordered it from a specialty store. Claire Shipley was a hunter: searching and waiting for the proper angle, the telling moment, for a narrative to give sense to the jumble of existence.

Upstairs, the group crowded into a private room. In one coordinated heave the orderlies shifted the patient from the gurney to a bed. The man moaned. At least the orderlies were quick. The staff bustled around the bed, taking the patient’s pulse, drawing blood, rearranging his useless limbs. In the enclosed space, the rotting stench he gave off assaulted Claire. She felt a constriction of revulsion and forced herself to ignore it, because the man’s eyes were alive now. Golden brown eyes, shifting slowly, their movement consuming his energy. His eyes followed the voices of the nurses. When Claire’s daughter, Emily, was a newborn, her delicate face peering from a wrap of pink blankets, her eyes had followed Claire’s voice around the room just so while Claire’s husband held her.

Claire felt a piercing ache. Her daughter had died seven and a half years ago. June 13 would mark eight years. Rationally, Claire knew that seven and a half years was a long time. Nonetheless sudden, intense memories jarred her, bringing Emily back with painful clarity. Claire’s husband was gone, too, although by now she could usually keep a mental door closed on the anger and despondency that had followed his departure. Automatically Claire did a maternal checkin: her younger child, Charlie, was safe at school. Later he would be at home following his usual routine with Maritza, their housekeeper, who was like a grandmother to him.

At the recollection of tucking a wool scarf into Charlie’s coat this morning, Claire confronted the dying man before her. Outside, he’d been easy to objectify. Here, with the movement of his eyes, he became an individual. Someone’s husband, dad, son, brother. His fate became personal. Focusing on his eyes, Claire opened the camera’s aperture to narrow the depth of field. She wanted to portray the staff and equipment as blurry and ominous, the way he must be experiencing them.

Claire couldn’t help herself: there was Emily, lying on her bed at home, too weak to fight on, lost to infection, strands of her curly, light brown hair sticking to her cheeks. The well-meaning doctor who visited each day couldn’t help her. Claire held Emily’s hand long past the moment when Emily’s spirit or soul or spark—whatever constituted life—slipped away. In a wave of delayed recognition, Claire understood that Emily was no longer simply resting after her terrible, twisting struggle, but was lifeless. Without life. Dead. After a moment Emily’s eyes opened, staring at the ceiling without seeing it. Her pale blue eyes seemed to turn white while Claire watched. Screams of torment consumed Claire in waves, even though someone else seemed to Claire to be screaming, a kind of ghost self within her.

Charlie woke from his nap in the next room. “Mama,” he called. “Mama.”

Whom did he want? Claire wondered as she heard his cries. She was immobilized by a dense weight within her chest. Then Claire realized with a start that she was his mother. The “mama” Charlie called for was her. She heard footsteps in the hallway. A voice hushed Charlie. Comforted him. Took him from his crib. Claire’s own mother, here to care for them.

Ever so softly, with a lifetime’s worth of gentleness, Claire pressed Emily’s eyelids shut. She kept her hand in place for long minutes. Beneath her fingers, she felt Emily’s brow, the tickle of her eyelashes, the tender perfection of her eyelids, the softness of her eyebrows. Emily’s eyebrows were darker than her hair, and Claire’s mother had predicted that Emily’s hair would turn dark as she grew older. Now they would never know. Claire tried to collect within her hand a generation of caresses, from the moment of Emily’s birth to the point far in the future, past Claire’s own death, that should have been the natural course of Emily’s life. Emily’s skin was still warm beneath Claire’s palm.

Seven and a half years ago. Like yesterday. A cliché that was always true. Claire picked up the chart from the end of the hospital bed and read the history of the man lying helpless before her. Edward R. Reese Jr. Age: 37. Height: 5’11”. Weight: 175. Marital status: Married. Two children. Address: 1020 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. Profession: Banker. Claire shuddered. He was only one year older than she was. She imagined him holding his children on his lap to read them a story at bedtime, the way she held Emily and Charlie. She saw him advising clients in a wood-paneled office.

He began to breathe in quick, choked gasps, as if the air were a knife cutting his lungs.

Claire read on. Fever upon arrival at the Presbyterian Hospital on Monday, December 8: 104.1. Fever upon transfer to the Rockefeller Institute: 106.04. Bacterial level in his blood at 7 am on December 10: 100 per milliliter. Claire didn’t know what that meant but assumed it was high. He’d been treated with two types of sulfa drugs, sulfadiazine and sulfapyridine. Neither had worked. He’d had three transfusions to try to clear the bacteria from his blood, to no avail. The infection had entered his bloodstream from a skin abrasion at the right knee. There were six abscesses in his right leg. His lungs were affected. Diagnosis: Staphylococcal septicemia.

Blood poisoning. Emily had died of blood poisoning.

In one gliding motion, a stately, straight-backed nurse took the chart from Claire’s hand and reattached it to the end of the bed. Chief Nurse Brockett, her identification badge read. Beneath her regulation cap, her steel gray hair was pulled into a bun. Her aloof severity reminded Claire of her high school headmistress, the type of woman who could intimidate with a glance.

“You may not read the chart.” Nurse Brockett enunciated each word with precision, as if she suspected that English were not Claire’s native language.

“That’s fine.” Claire pushed her memories of her daughter out of her mind and attacked the problem at hand. Nurse Brockett. Well, Claire wasn’t subject to this hierarchy, and Nurse Brockett didn’t intimidate her. Through her years of work she’d learned to agree with everyone in charge and then, when their attention was diverted, do exactly what she needed to do to get the story. Bravado was a trait Claire put on each morning with her silk blouse and tailored trousers. Her boss had sent her here to follow the testing of a potentially revolutionary medication, but already Claire knew that the real story, the one with emotion and power, was about saving the life of Edward Reese.

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