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Kindred Spirits, Distant Hearts. Chapter 28

Tags: dispair, ww2, libya
"...and there fell from it three drops of blood on the snow."

Tripoli. February 04th 1942

 

The news from Benghazi was a double edged sword for Katarina. On the one hand, Maria would at least be away from the fighting but on the other, she would be alone and unhappy. She couldn't imagine what it would be like to be caged in a foreign land so far from home.

As for herself, the time resting had worked wonders. A good night's sleep had found her wake to find that the hearing in her right ear had returned to normal and the pain had subsided to nothing more than a dull ache which she found quite bearable compared to the pain she had initially.

In herself, she felt physically well, better than she had in quite a while but, as was her won't, she couldn't do nothing.

It was fortunate that her other uniform had been cleaned and starched in the day before the accident so she washed, dressed and went to the canteen for some breakfast.

 

Tripoli hospital itself had been built on Assaidi Street by the Italians in Nineteen-ten to replace a cluster of smaller clinics which occupied the site. It was situated in its own grounds on the east side of the city and was built from white stone and surrounded by well-kept gardens and lawns. Thus far, it had been spared from the bombing which had been concentrated on the port area, garrison, and airfield.

Although there were some German doctors, nurses, and orderlies, it was still operated by the Italians with predominantly Italian medical staff. In the few weeks she had been there she'd had very little contact with them. It didn't help, of course, that she couldn't speak a word of Italian.

From what little contact she had had, she had found them quite agreeable if not a little, well, relaxed, to put it politely.

Since her Senior Medical Officer had told her... no, ordered her, to rest, Katarina thought she would make the most of her enforced break and explore the grounds. Although it was a Wednesday, there was very little difference to any other day. The war went on regardless of which day of the week it might be.

There was a constant stream of patients through the hospital. The local admissions were generally for sickness and heat fatigue but there were many casualties from the fighting further east.

Whenever she was able, she would ask for news of her sister, just in case, but the answer was always the same. No-one had seen her and so, as far as anyone could tell, she had been taken aboard the hospital ship which had sailed immediately before Benghazi was retaken.

 

As she walked, Katarina found a small, secluded spot by a palm tree which offered a shadowy place to sit for a while and read the small book that she had brought with her. She had read it many times on her travels as it offered her a refuge from the daily toil that her duties brought with them.

Very carefully, she opened the now rather worn pages at random and then flicked back to the beginning of the short story she had found...

 

It was the middle of winter, and the snow-flakes were falling like feathers from the sky, and a Queen sat at her window working, and her embroidery-frame was of ebony. And as she worked, gazing at times out on the snow, she pricked her finger, and there fell from it three drops of blood on the snow. And when she saw how bright and red it looked, she said to herself, “Oh that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the embroidery frame!” Not very long after she had a daughter, with a skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony, and she was named Snow-white. And when she was born the Queen died.

 

Soon, Katarina was immersed in a world of fantasy where the snows of the Grimm winter, for a short time at least, were more real to her than the warm air and hazy sunlight of this Libyan winter.

 

The looking-glass answered,

 

O Queen, although you are of beauty rare,
The young bride is a thousand times more fair.”

 

Then she railed and cursed, and was beside herself with disappointment and anger. First she thought she would not go to the wedding; but then she felt she should have no peace until she went and saw the bride. And when she saw her she knew her for Snow-white, and could not stir from the place for anger and terror. For they had ready red-hot iron shoes, in which she had to dance until she fell down dead.”

 

As she read those final, chilling words, written so long ago by the Brothers Grimm, her eyes drooped closed and she finally succumbed to the warm sun and quiet location against the warm tree trunk. Her head nodded gently forwards and the old, dog-eared book slipped from her hands and fell to the grass where it lay open at her side.

She had no notion at all of how long she had been there when she was disturbed by a gentle but familiar voice.

“Schneewittchen,” the voice said as she opened her weary eyes and looked up at the tall figure silhouetted against the bright sunlight. “I haven't read Snow White since I was just a little boy.”

Katarina blushed.

“I still like it,” she said a little self consciously. “I choose stories at random when I have any time... which isn't often, these days,” she added. “It passes the time.”

The figure crouched down and then sat beside her on the grass. She had recognised the head surgeon's voice as soon as he spoke and now he had moved from in front of the sun, she could see her superior more clearly.

“A nice spot you have here,” he said. “I wish I had more time to enjoy it with you.”

“That's easy enough to arrange, Sir. All you have to do is get blown up.”

The surgeon smiled.

“It is good to hear you laugh, Matron. It is a sound all too rare these days.”

Katarina nodded and took her book as the surgeon handed it to her.

“There is so little to laugh at these days,” she replied. “All we seem to see now is death and destruction. It can't go on for much longer, this stupid war, can it?”

The surgeon shrugged.

“I don't know,” he said, sadly. “I can't see an end any time soon. Take Libya for instance. The British broke out before Christmas and fought their way through the desert and now? Now we have retaken Benghazi and Rommel has fought back as far as Timimi.

“And all our colleagues taken prisoner in the mean-time,” she sighed. “It isn't right.”

“Mm, yes, that...” The surgeon seemed hesitant. “That is why I came to find you.”

“To tell me about our colleagues being taken? I already knew that.”

The Oberstabsartzt seemed reluctant, if not a little afraid to speak, but he took a deep breath.

“I know that you have been looking for news of your sister ever since you arrived here...”

“Yes, but I know where she is now and I... I won't be able to...”

The Chief Surgeon put his hand on her arm and Katarina looked at him.

“You know something?”

“Last night... a British Hospital ship was bombed by the Luftwaffe as it approached the straights of Gibraltar.”

Katarina was aghast.

“Our own air force attacked a hospital ship?” The words came slowly as she tried to make any sense of the news. “Are you sure? How could they!”

The surgeon nodded.

“Quite sure,” he said. “I don't have any details but it seems that it was badly damaged and on fire when they realised that it was a Lazarettschiff. The only thing I have any certainty of is that it was the same ship that sailed from Benghazi on the twenty-ninth.”

Katarina grabbed his arm.

“The one that the prisoners were aboard...”

The surgeon nodded silently.

“Did it sink? Were there survivors?”

“I don't know” he replied. “I haven't heard anything else. I only know that because I have a friend who is a pilot. He said that they thought it was a troop ship in the dark because it wasn't properly lit. When they realised what it really was, it was too late and several of their bombs had hit her directly.”

Inside her chest, Katarina's heart was pounding so much she thought it must surely burst and she felt as though she couldn't breathe. The pain of uncertainty was unbearable and all she could think of was Maria dragging her from the sea after they had been shipwrecked after she had almost drowned and it took every ounce of her self-control to not break down. She had to be strong and she had to keep going.

“I... I don't know... what... to do.” The words came slowly, hesitant and tremulous. “My sister...”

The surgeon tightened his grip on her forearm.

“I know,” he said gently, “That is why I thought you should know. If I hear anything more I will let you know immediately. In the meantime, if there is anything I can do, anything you need...”

Katarina shook her head.

“No,” she whispered. “I think I just need to be alone for a while.”

 

After the surgeon left her, Katarina placed the little book in her pocket and stood up. She suddenly realised that, even though she had got her wish for solitude, she didn't know what to do with it. Her mind was a whirl of agonising thoughts and memories and after a few minutes of aimless walking, she decided that maybe she would be better with something to occupy her, keep her mind active. The only thing she knew of that would help her was being back at work. She was sure that the surgeon would understand and so she headed back towards the hospital entrance.

As was normal, the entrance was a hive of activities with ambulances arriving regularly and disgorging their patients into the care of the hospital. The chatter of the Italian nurses and orderlies was lost to her as her mind toiled. It was no more than background noise but, just as she climbed the steps up to the doorway a voice suddenly penetrated her haze of thoughts, a German voice.

“You made it then?”

Katarina stopped and turned towards the direction the voice had come from.

“What?” she asked, unsure of who had spoken or what he meant. “Made what?”

The voice had come from a soldier who was being taken inside on a stretcher. His upper body was swathed in bloodstained bandages but she recognised his uniform trousers to be of the British type.

“You got out. That bomb was fortuitous, obviously.”

“I'm sorry but I haven't a clue what you are talking about. What bomb? How is any bomb 'fortuitous'?”

“Oh, come on. You don't need to play games. Last week, in the alleyway. You and your two colleagues...”

“No,” she replied, turning away. “You must be confused.”

“I may be damaged but I am certainly not confused,” he said testily. “You and your two friends escaped from me in Benghazi last week. I had never met a German woman before and I would most certainly not forget someone as pretty, nor as brave as you!”

At the mention of Benghazi, Katarina stopped dead and turned back.

You saw me in Benghazi last week? When?”

“Twenty-ninth. During the air raid... oh, of course, you wouldn't recognise me, I was dressed in Arab clothes.”

“I don't recognise you because I have never been to Benghazi. Tell me more about this person you think you saw. What happened.”

The Englishman's eyes narrowed as he struggled to believe her.

“Is this some kind of a trick?” he asked her. “I saw you clearly, you and your two friends. If it wasn't you then you have a doppelganger or a twin!”

At the mention of the word twin, Katarina moved her face closer to his.

“I do have a twin sister,” she hissed, her lips close to his ear, “and she was in Benghazi but she left on the hospital ship. Are you saying she didn't?”

The Englishman frowned, a little alarmed at this sudden change of demeanour and didn't answer her question.

“Oh, I get it...” he said. “You are trying to trick me. I am David Harris, Lieutenant, Five-three-one-seven-seven-zero-four!”

“Lieutenant Harris, I don't care who you are,” she hissed into his ear. “All I want to know is where my sister is. I have never hurt a living thing in my life but I could make an exception...”

David Harris looked at her and then at the orderlies who where patiently waiting, holding the stretcher. His natural mistrust preventing him from giving her an immediate answer.

Eventually, he looked back at Katarina and he saw the urgency in her ice blue eyes.

“We were in an alley, my men and I, sheltering from the air raid. Three nurses burst in and they didn't see us in the darkness. One of them asked for a match and... well... anyway, I lit a lamp. We were going to take them prisoner but a bomb exploded just outside and in the confusion, they escaped...”

“Where did they go?” Katarina urged him.

“I don't know. We went after them but in all the dust and debris and dodging the bomb blasts, we lost them.”

Upon hearing these words, Katarina began to despair even more. Now she could only see her sister lying dead in a pile of rubble.

Slowly, she straightened up, nodded for the orderlies to take him inside and turned away.

“Wait!”

Katarina turned back.

David Harris had seen the tears form in her eyes and his heart melted.

“Look, I'm sorry. There was something else. I don't know if it means anything but an ambulance was taken that night, amid the confusion at the hospital. It wasn't found in the town so whoever took it wasn't killed. A lone ambulance was also spotted by an RAF fighter the following day in Siduq, an abandoned village some thirty miles to the west of Benghazi. The following day, the same pilot reported seeing it again, some ten miles south of Az Zuwaytinah. Maybe it was her.”

“Are you telling me the truth? How would you know this?

“Because my men and I were sent to find it! When we got to the reported positions all we found was sand.”

Katarina's heart sank again. Now she could see Maria lost in the desert but at least she was likely to be alive.

“So I don't know any more now than I did before except that she could be any kind of trouble.”

“I'm sorry, I really am. If I could tell you more I would. I can see you are genuinely worried for your sister and I wouldn't wish that on anyone... there is one more thing though.”

He beckoned her nearer with a slight flick of his head and as Katarina bent nearer he whispered,

“We couldn't follow any further because Az Zuwaytinah was in Jerry's hands... sorry, German hands and we got into a firefight, so it might just be that she made it back.”

Katarina tried to make sense of it all.

“Why are you here, David? In Tripoli, I mean, in an Italian hospital. Benghazi is more than a thousand kilometres away...”

The Englishman's eyes narrowed before he whispered even more quietly directly into her ear.

“I can't tell you that, I've said far more than I should as it is but maybe, after the war is over, you will get to hear about me and my men.”

Katarina was puzzled but she thanked him and allowed the orderlies to carry on.

She walked slowly through the hospital corridors, deeply lost in thought. In the past hour Maria had been on a ship, then on a sinking ship and then on no ship at all! Katarina didn't know what to believe but at least she could now hold on to a hope that she could find her sister again and that tiny grain was so much better that no grain at all.

As she rounded a corner a young, raven haired nurse suddenly appeared and bumped shoulders with her. She was about to speak when the young nurse's eyes suddenly opened wide.

“Hey, Matron! What are you doing here? You should be in bed and what did you do to your ear?”

“I have a damaged eardrum and why should I be in bed? More to the point, who are you?”

“Matron, you should be resting but your ear, how and when did you damage it? I saw you only two hours ago.”

“Two hours ago I was outside in the grounds so you can't have seen... Maria!”

“Yes... Maria... You!” The young woman began to look alarmed.

Katarina smiled and shook her head.

“No, not me. I am Katarina Langsdorff. Where is Maria Kaufmann? Is she here?”

The bemused nurse took a step back, a little fearful.

“You know her?”

Katarina was getting impatient, she had to know right now if her sister was here but the nurse's jaw suddenly dropped and her eyes opened wide.

“Katarina! Of course, I should have guessed! You are Maria's sister!”

There was a moment's silence as she took in this monumental piece of news.

“Oh my Lord! Come on. I'll take you to her!”

 

They walked quickly, trying hard not to run. As they climbed the stairs to the next floor young nurse suddenly apologised and introduced herself.

“I'm sorry, My name is Anneliese. I worked with Matron Kaufmann in Benghazi.”

“Pretty name,” Katarina replied and before Anneliese had a chance to respond she continued. “Is Maria hurt? Is that why she is here?”

“She was stung by a Scorpion, four days ago but it's a long story, Matron... She is in here.”

They passed quickly through the door and into a small side ward.

There were four beds but only one was occupied and another young nurse was sitting on a chair beside it, chatting.

Katarina suddenly stopped dead and stared at the recumbent patient. She couldn't speak and her throat ached, feeling as though it had a lump the size of an apple in it.

Her eyes burned and filled with moisture and no matter how hard she tried she couldn't stop her bottom lip from trembling.

The patient in the bed looked up at this sudden intruder and she too stared in amazement.

“'Trina!” she whispered her voice cracked with emotion and pushed herself upright.

Katarina took a single step, her feet leaden, almost glued to the floor but then she ran forwards and threw her arms around her sister's neck and held her.

Maria hugged Katarina tightly, wanting to never ever let her go.

Without releasing her grip for even a second, Katarina sat on the side of the bed and they both sobbed heartily, their tears mingling on their cheeks.

 

 

 

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