M A S H Fan Fiction ❯ Theatre of War ❯ Perfumed Distractions ( Chapter 3 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

With half shuttered eyes, I examined the ceiling above me. I could feel myself waking finally, dream giving way to reality. Gradually I remembered the OR, the wounded, Hawkeye and BJ working diligently to save lives. I remembered Lena and her silver cross. I was still Korea's prisoner, despite what my dreams entertained. Morning's familiar staleness throbbed at my senses as I slowly acknowledged the new task before me:
I had to get up.
I felt a bit groggy as I forfeited my covers, meeting winter's chill with a start, but a good run around the compound would help clear my mind. Sunday's sermon was but hours away after all and I had to prepare. Preaching to this MASH unit made me feel needed, helpful. Not just another faceless chaplain but a friend to those poor souls who needed guidance. I didn't get much of a turnout, granted, but when the men felt like attending they did. Even if it wasn't often.
Layering against the winter morning I dressed in a turtleneck and khakis, throwing on my thick Loyola hoodie over top. It was quite cold out, my tent taking on all the charm of a freezer's insides. I almost wished I would have packed a scarf, but it was a bit too late for that now.
Stretching for a moment, giving my muscles a chance to wake up too, I did some warm ups and rubbed at the pain aching my back. I felt pretty stiff; must be getting old at thirty four. An army cot isn't quite as cozy as one would think, you know. But I wasn't one to complain. When so many others had it worse off, how could anyone complain about a cramped bunk? It seemed rather inappropriate.
“Hey Father Mulcahy, sir.”
Corporal Radar O'Reilly waved faintly from behind Colonel Potter's tent, poking around a little cage. He looked pretty distraught, his frown deepening as he shook a piece of celery between the wire bars. He was normally such a happy boy, I worried something was wrong. I walked over still feeling a bit stiff.
“Well, good morning Radar. What are you doing up so early?” Part of me hoped he was planning on coming to service, but I knew it was a wish made in vain. I adjusted my glasses and watched as his shoulders dropped sadly. “Is everything alright, my son? You seem...troubled.”
He sighed and set the cage back down. “It's my rabbit, Fluffy, sir. She hasn't eaten in two whole days. I'm worried about her.” Radar's brow furrowed, lost in thought. I wondered if perhaps there was more bothering him and so I simply nodded, not wishing to scare him off. “Hope she's okay. Maybe the cold is getting to her?”
“Oh, well, I'm sure she'll be just fine, Radar.” He didn't look relieved at my halfhearted attempt, so I added carefully, “But, just to be on the safe side perhaps you could let her stay with you until it gets warmer? Although I'm certainly no expert, Fluffy could probably use some time away from winter.
“I'm sure she'd be happy to share your quarters with you.” When the man smiled, so did I. I felt happy to help. “And I'm sure Colonel Potter wouldn't mind, under the circumstances that is.”
Radar continued to give a squinty little smile, opening the cage door to pet the large white rabbit within. “Thanks, Father.”
He paused and then cleared his throat, and I waited patiently for the real problem to be discussed. It didn't pay to prod I knew; a chaplain had to let the confession come naturally.
“Er...Father Mulcahy, sir? Do you think...do you think you could maybe give Fluffy a little blessing before you go?”
“Oh, well...” That certainly wasn't expected.
Radar must have noticed my fluster because he hastened to elaborate.
“Nothing special, of course, just maybe...something to help get her feeling better? A little prayer, or...something. I know Fluffy would appreciate it a lot. So would I.”
I smiled politely and nodded, suddenly feeling awkward. Here I thought Radar needed guidance or someone to talk to, but I guess not. Perhaps I was getting old.
I'd never blessed a bunny before, but I gave Fluffy my best attempt, praying she recover as soon as possible. I even pet her quickly on the head to show my sincerity. Radar thanked me again and trotted off, cage in tow. At least he looked happy, that much I was glad for.
Fondly I remembered why being a priest was important to me.
Despite the chill, morning turned out very pleasant I decided, slowly jogging from tent to tent sloshing through wet snow. The air reminded me of home, fresh and brisk and stinging to the nostrils. I almost forgot how sore I was as I neared my quarters, enjoying the last stretch of my run. Just in time to get ready for nine o'clock service.
As I suspected, the mess tent was completely empty save for Klinger, dressed in a black evening gown and white kidskin gloves. Corporal Klinger was the only one to attend my services regularly, despite being atheist. He and I sometimes chatted afterwards about his faith, or lack there of, but he assured me there would be no changing his mind. A God who'd allow war was no God he'd support. Klinger proclaimed however that if I turned out to be right about `all my God stuff', he'd get into Heaven anyway due to our friendship.
I liked Klinger, flowery numbers and all.
It was almost nine so I gathered my notes and stepped behind the podium to begin. “Good morning, everyone.”
I swallowed my disappointment as `everyone' in the form of Klinger exchanged puzzled looks with me. “Well, good morning to you at least, Klinger. I guess I should omit the `please be seated' part, seeing as you have already found a seat for yourself.”
I flipped to the next card when a voice interrupted me. I need not look up to know who it was.
“Oh, forgive me Father.”
Lena quickly opened the door and entered, looking quite embarrassed. Taking a hymnal book, she smiled guiltily. “I'm a bit late. I'm afraid I'm still working on Philadelphia time.”
For a moment I couldn't speak, watching her sit next to Klinger. As fetching as she was standing outside Colonel Potter's quarters, Lena looked absolutely lovely now, proper in a modest white dress and gloves. Corporal Klinger was apparently impressed too, asking by way of whisper where she shopped.
“Oh, n-not at all, child. I'm glad you could make it.”
I adjusted my glasses and turned to a dog-eared page, throwing furtive glances at her as I began the service. My note cards had disappeared somewhere on the podium and I felt as awkward as a teenager, shuffling through paper to find the one I needed. Not that this surprised me, I could hardly prevent myself from stammering during service, let alone stop shaking. Public speaking was not my forte.
I prayed I wouldn't disappoint this morning of all mornings. For some reason I just couldn't.
I couldn't help but smile as I read from the Gospel of Matthew, knowing my flock had just gained a new member. And one who wasn't an atheist at that! Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Lena wore her cross proudly. I quickly concentrated elsewhere, suddenly conscious of my inappropriate behavior.
“- what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”
A collective groan outside the mess tent was heard, forcing me to prolong my pause. When at last silence fell, I noted with a jolt of relief my party had not wearied of me. Actually, both Klinger and Lena waited with rapt attention. Something close to pride surged, and I found myself grinning like a schoolboy at the two of them.
But no sooner had I been excited, that familiar tingle in my ears started to burn and I looked away, rapidly hoping that this was all a dream. I had never woken up this morning, I was still in bed. Corporal O'Reilly and Fluffy were still outside, battling over a piece of unwashed celery. Klinger would be my only attendee, as always; Lena still asleep in Margaret's tent.
But I wasn't so lucky.
“Ah - forgive the interruption, everyone. Let us start over.” My voice cracked with nervousness, and I longed for a glass of water. What was it about that girl that bothered me? Fumbling over another note card, I readjusted my glasses and started once more.
This would not do at all.
Around lunchtime more wounded came in on evacuation busses, calling people away from the gruel on their trays. Doctors and nurses attended to triage while I put on my apron and face mask, bible in hand to help where needed.
I counted myself lucky to have an excuse to avoid Lena. She was a nice girl, a very nice girl in fact, but it simply wasn't proper for me to spend too much time around her. Especially when I felt my face flush and my ears tingle every time our eyes met.
She turned out to be a decent surgeon, as Colonel Potter had said. But she was still foreign to life in the war. Poor thing, she looked ill throughout most of the day. Lena also was a bit slow to finish, taking six patients to everyone else's fifteen. But we understood. Not long ago we had been new ourselves. I think we were all just glad to have another doctor to help out.
Despite how I resisted, my eyes seemed to drift to Lena's table every so often, remembering how nice she smelled the night before. That scent had seemed unimportant to me then, as tired as I was, but now its sweet memory haunted me. It was the same perfume she had worn to service, I noticed. I couldn't get its light melody out of my head, and I tried very hard to determine what the mixture was hoping that would break its spell.
Passing by another table, I bumped into Radar.
“Oh, sorry Father. Colonel, sir - ICOR is on the phone. Our order of penicillin has been canceled again. I told `em how important it was but no such luck. Can you believe it?”
A few staff members groaned their frustration at the news. We were in desperate need of penicillin, and with the sudden rush of injured, many young boys wouldn't live to see Christmas if we didn't receive more soon.
Colonel Potter wasted no time in voicing his verdict. “Get back on that phone to ICOR. Offer them anything, you have my permission to tear the 4077th apart if that's what it takes - we need that penicillin, Radar.”
“Yes, sir. Colonel Potter, sir.” Radar mumbled obediently, ducking through the door and swiftly returning.
“And Radar,” Potter began without looking at the man, “if you have to get my signature -”
“- make sure to forge it. Yes sir, don't worry sir.”
When things finally slowed down I felt out of place. I found myself unconsciously working my way closer to Lena, although she paid me no attention. I noticed with worry her face had paled and her hands shook, suture needle and all.
Hawkeye seemed to notice as well, pausing under the bright light of his lamp. “Okay over there, Lena?” He sliced into his last boy, ordering the nurse for more suction. “I haven't seen anyone look that ill since Frank went sleepwalking naked into the women's shower.”
“Oh, ha ha.” Burns turned a squinty eye at the man. “Very funny, Pierce. I'll have you know I wasn't even naked.”
“Socks don't count, Frank.”
“Oh, go jump in the lake!” Major Burns stopped working on his patient to give a little huff.
Houlihan urged him back to work, giving a warning glance toward Colonel Potter. The two of them seemed to be having a lover's quarrel, Margaret roughly going through the motions instead of showing affection as she normally would.
“Honestly, Margaret. That willy-nilly ought to learn some manners. I'm a Major,” His childish whine broke over the clang of metal trays and Margaret tensed up. “If General MacArthur were here, oh - he'd set him square.”
Major Houlihan handed him a scalpel forcefully. “Oh Frank, just get back to work.”
BJ smiled good naturedly at Major Burns, who shot daggers between the two of them. “Come on, Frank; I hear at least one nurse didn't cry. That ought to mean something.”
Frank gave a snide little shake of the head and caught the attention of Margaret, who apparently was said nurse. I noticed from my perch near Colonel Potter's table she did not look pleased to be mentioned on Frank's behalf.
“You're absolutely right, Beej.” Hawkeye looked up between cuts and let his eyes smile, like they were hiding a private joke. “She was too busy laughing.”
I gripped my bible tightly, watching as Frank flung a package of bandages at Hawkeye who then proceeded to return fire. “Oh my -” I crossed myself and looked skyward, ducking just in time to avoid a roll of surgical tape.
“That's enough, the two of you!” Colonel Potter bellowed, ordering for an immediate end to their private war.
Waiting for the nurse to clamp his patient, the man lifted his bloodied hands in the air. “This is an OR. When you're in here you are doctors, so act like doctors! Quit squabbling like a bunch of irate chickens and remember why you're here. If you can't play nice, I'll fix it so you can't hold soup. Comprende?!
“Galena,” Potter's voice still sounded annoyed, “this will probably be our last stretch for a bit; go get yourself some fresh air. BJ is about finished, he can close up for you.” He nodded gruffly towards the Captain, who smiled his consent.
Lena's blank face turned toward the old man and she silently obeyed.
“With the pair of you nincompoops running around here unsupervised, I seriously wonder what's worse - this war or the fact our side would sanction doctors with your level of maturity.” Potter shook his head and settled back into his patient, peering though glasses as fresh blood spilled. “Hogwash.”
I'd like to say I let Lena walk out of the OR without a second thought, left to wander the snow covered compound alone. I'd like to say I ignored the tightening in my chest as she pushed through the door. I'd like to say a lot of things actually.
But catching that same blind fear in her eyes as the night before, I knew the girl would need someone to talk to. To cry with. And I found myself following close behind, still gripping my bible protectively.
What was a chaplain to do?
The afternoon had just about pulled to a close when I remembered my promise to Lena, to let her visit the orphanage with me. At the time it had been an attempt at getting her mind off matters, and it seemed to do the trick. So after I found the woman slumped down in the deserted mess tent weeping, I figured now was the best time to act on that promise.
After talking with Colonel Potter and getting permission, the two of us drove away from the compound and onto a little slushy road. A trip made in silence. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed neither of us spoke as the ride seemed to take longer than usual. It's funny, really. This whole time I had been trying to avoid Lena, when I finally achieved my goal - I felt let down.
A few times I thought I heard muffled sobs coming from my right, but I would never know. Lena had turned away, crumpled into a ball, staring at the snow covered trees lining our path. Poor thing, I wished so badly to help her. I prayed that this trip would do some good.
When we finally made it to the orphanage, the familiar parade of children and nuns greeted us at our jeep. I had missed all of them! All their happy faces seemed to do wonders for Lena, who stopped crying at once. Her eyes were a bit puffy but otherwise that same beauty that had plagued me yesterday shined through with each new smile she gave.
Just as I had expected, the children took to Lena instantly, and she took to them.
There was one little girl in particular that stuck to her like glue. Gracie Kim we had named her, since the child's true name had been lost. It was a sad truth of war, the many lives destroyed. But Gracie's smile proved hope was still alive. And how she loved Lena! During one game, Gracie had spent the better part of ten minutes curled up in the Lieutenant's arms, happily giggling from her perch.
As the day progressed, we found ourselves gathered inside from the cold air, sprawled out along the cold wood floor. The children played next to me, their mirthful elation making me smile as I spoke with one of the nuns.
Lena was a great girl I decided, watching her pretend to be a horse for the game they had made up. Her laughter matched the children's, and I was relieved to see her eyes dance with that same fascination as before. And I remembered the first time I had seen her. How odd that an undone button could hold such interest for her. For me.
With a happy little jolt Lena fell under the weight of three young girls, who she proceeded to tickle as soon as her arm was freed. Gracie got the brunt of her attack, squealing happily beneath Lena's hands.
All thoughts of war seemed forgotten for this one beautiful moment, and for the first time in a long time, I felt glad to be in Korea.
Eventually the excitement wore down and the children went off to enjoy dinner. Gracie had to practically be pried from Lena, Sister Teresa ushering the girl from the room. Finally able to break free, Lena and I strolled outside, careful to avoid a mine field a few yards away.
The sun hung low in the western sky, painted gold against purple. Thin pink clouds collected overhead, their bellies glowing brightly with the yellow light. Even the snow turned pastel in this haze, a million twinkling diamonds reflecting the sunset. It was turning out to be quite an evening.
Lena looked lovely too; lips and cheeks flushed red with winter's chill. Her eyes seemed to dance in the light as she smiled, kicking some snow absently as we walked along our path.
“I want to thank you, Father.”
Her voice snapped me back to reality and I quickly looked away. Had she seen me staring?
She sounded a bit melancholy, pausing by a tree. “For bringing me here. I'm glad to have gotten away from things.”
Beyond her the sun broke the horizon, sky ablaze for one last show. Lena's hair looked like warm chocolate in the amber light, loose bangs flowing gently about her brow. “If only for a moment. I've had a lot of fun today, thank you.”
I found myself staring again, drinking in her smile. “Yes, well, you're quite welcome Lena. The children enjoyed your company, too.” I locked eyes with her for a moment and suddenly felt uncomfortable. I laughed nervously to break the tension.
“Especially little Gracie, she didn't let you out of her sight!”
“Mmm,” Lena agreed serenely, taking her eyes off of me to inhale the sunset.
Somehow I had ended up a foot from her, resting against another tree. In the gentle breeze I caught hints of Lena's perfume, warm and inviting in the winter air. I still couldn't place that scent, although I knew by now it was agreeable to my senses.
And that single thought scared me to death.
“She is a sweet child. They all are. I think -” she looked back at me, “- having a place to stay and be loved is a small consolation for their misery. They are lucky to have you, Father.”
Lena gave me a sincere smile and watched the light die away. Sometime during our outing it had begun to snow, large flakes dusting us under a canopy of dark branches.
“Me? I've done nothing -” I felt my heart sink when her eyes found mine. It amazed me how blue they were, even as the sun fell lower behind the trees. “It's Sister Teresa who has been a blessing to those children. I don't find nearly enough time to devote to the cause.”
I bowed my head towards my shoes, kicking away a few pieces of white clinging to my pant leg. “It pains me greatly to know there is so much more I could be doing, and yet cannot.”
“How can you say that, Father?” Lena had straightened, no longer against her tree. “Sister Mary Roberts told me you visit almost every week. That is far more than most do; it's very noble.
“From what I can tell, the 4077th keeps quite busy. In only a day and a half I've already seen hundreds of faces pass through camp. The fact you put aside time at all shows how much you care.” She gave me an earnest smile, settling back against her tree. “Those children love you, Father; there's a reason for it.”
The wind had died away, the soft flutter of falling snow filling our awkward silence. It was true that the children enjoyed my company, and I enjoyed theirs. But I had a difficult time breaking away from the crush of war to help. I tried to do all I could, but it wasn't nearly enough.
Even my feeble attempts at charity did not measure up to the work of Sister Teresa, who spent the better part of two years tending to orphans around Korea. How could anyone give me credit?
Suddenly I felt quite cold standing along the thatch of trees.
“Perhaps we should head back, Lieutenant.” I said a bit drier than intended, regretting at once the look of hurt in Lena's eyes.
I meant to correct this mistake but found words impossible. She smiled sadly at me and nodded, diverting her eyes.
In silence we walked back to the orphanage, avoiding each other's gaze in the last wisp of sunlight. Even after we thanked the Sisters and said goodbye, the two of us remained mute, riding back to camp without another word.
I felt a terrible weight upon my chest as I entered my tent, but the cause escaped me. How strange it was really, to feel so broken. After all, this was what I wanted wasn't it? To maintain a professional relationship, to keep my distance. Lena didn't need an old Priest hanging around her anyways. I had to keep my distance. It wasn't proper for a chaplain to behave otherwise - I had to remind myself time and time again. This was the right course to take.
So why did I feel so miserable?