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A Long Petal of the Sea

Chapter 1


Get ready, lads,

To kill again, to die once more

And to cover the blood with flowers.

—Pablo Neruda

The young soldier was part of the “Baby Bottle Conscription,” the boys called up when there were no more men, young or old, to fight the war. Victor Dalmau received him with the other wounded taken from the supply truck and laid out like logs on mats placed over the cement and stone floor of the Estacion del Norte, where they had to wait for other vehicles to take them to the hospital centers. The boy lay motionless, with the calm look of someone who has seen the angels and now fears nothing. There was no telling how many days he had spent being shifted from one stretcher to another, one field hospital to another, one ambulance to another, before reaching Catalonia on this particular train.

At the station, doctors, paramedics, and nurses evaluated the soldiers, immediately dispatching the most serious cases to the hospital, and classifying the others according to the part of the body where they had been wounded: Group A: arms, Group B: legs, Group C: head, and so on. They were then transferred to the corresponding center with labels around their necks. The wounded arrived by the hundreds, and each diagnosis and decision had to be made in no more than a few minutes. But the chaos and confusion were misleading, for no one was left unattended, no one was left behind. Those in need of surgery were sent to the old Sant Andreu building in Manresa; those requiring treatment were dispatched to other centers; the remainder were left where they were, since nothing could be done to save them. Volunteer women would moisten their lips, whisper to them, and comfort them as if they were their own children, in the knowledge that somewhere else, another woman might be cradling their own son or brother. Later, the stretcher-bearers would take them to the morgue.

The little soldier had a wound in his chest, and the doctor, after a swift examination during which he could detect no pulse, decided the boy was beyond all help, and had no need of either morphine or consolation. On the battlefield they had strapped a bandage around his chest to protect the wound with an inverted tin plate, but nobody knew how many hours or days, how many trains ago that had been.

Dalmau was there to assist the doctors. Although it was his duty to leave the boy and attend to the next case, he thought that if the youngster had survived the shock, the hemorrhaging, and the journey to reach this station platform, he must really want to live; and so it would be a shame to surrender him to death now. Carefully removing the bandages, he saw to his amazement that the wound was still open and was as clean as if it had been painted onto his chest. He couldn’t understand how the bullet had shattered the ribs and part of the sternum, and yet had left the heart intact. Having worked for nearly three years on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, at first on the fronts at Madrid and Teruel, and then at the evacuation hospital at Manresa, Victor Dalmau thought he had seen everything, become immunized to the suffering of others, but he had never seen an actual beating heart.

Fascinated, he watched the final, increasingly slow and sporadic pulsation until it ceased completely, and the little soldier finally passed away without a sigh. For a brief moment, Dalmau simply stood there, contemplating the red hole where the heartbeats had ceased. This was to be his most stubborn, persistent memory of the war: that fifteen- or sixteen-year-old boy, still smooth-cheeked, filthy with the dirt of battle and dried blood, laid out on a stretcher with his heart exposed to the air. Victor was never able to explain to himself why he inserted three fingers of his right hand into the gaping wound, gently grasped the organ, and squeezed it rhythmically several times, quite calmly and naturally, for how long, he couldn’t remember: perhaps thirty seconds, or perhaps an eternity. Suddenly he felt the heart coming back to life between his fingers, first with an almost imperceptible tremor, soon with a strong, regular beat.

“If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I never would have believed it,” said one of the doctors who had approached without Dalmau noticing. He called over two stretcher-bearers, ordering them to rush the wounded youth to the hospital—this was a special case.

“Where did you learn that?” he asked Dalmau as soon as the men had lifted the little soldier onto the stretcher. The boy’s face was still ashen, but he had a pulse.

Victor Dalmau, a man of few words, told the doctor that he had managed to complete three years of medical studies in Barcelona before leaving for the front as an auxiliary.

“But where did you learn that technique?” insisted the doctor.

“Nowhere, but I thought there was nothing to lose . . .”

“I see you have a limp.”

“My left femur. I was injured at Teruel. It’s getting better.”

“Good. From now on you’ll work with me. What’s your name?”

“Victor Dalmau, comrade.”

“I am not your comrade. Call me ‘Doctor.’ Understood?”

“Understood, Doctor. The same goes for me: you can call me Señor Dalmau. But the other comrades aren’t going to like it one bit.”

The doctor smiled to himself. The very next day, Dalmau began to learn a profession that would determine his destiny. Together with everyone else at Sant Andreu and other hospitals, he heard the story circulating that the team of surgeons had spent sixteen hours resurrecting the young soldier. Many called it a miracle. The advances of science, and the boy’s constitution of an ox, claimed those who had renounced God and his saints. Victor promised himself he would visit the boy wherever he was transferred, but in the chaos of those days he found it impossible to keep track of those present and those missing, of the living and the dead. For a long while it seemed as though he had forgotten the heart he had held in his hand.

Yet years later, on the far side of the world, he still saw the soldier in nightmares, and from then on the boy visited him occasionally, a pale, sad ghost with his heart on a platter. Dalmau could not recall, or possibly never knew, his real name, but for obvious reasons he called him Lazaro.

The young soldier, though, never forgot the name of his savior. As soon as he could sit up and drink water on his own, he was told about the feat performed at the Estacion del Norte by an auxiliary who had brought him back from the land of death. He was assailed with questions: everyone wanted to know whether heaven and hell really existed, or had been invented by the bishops to instill fear in people. The boy recovered before the end of the war, and two years later in Marseilles had the name of Victor Dalmau tattooed beneath the scar.

Like almost all youths his age, Victor had joined the Republican Army in 1936 and gone off with his regiment to defend Madrid, which had been partially occupied by Franco and his Nationalist forces, as the troops who rose against the government called themselves. Victor had worked recovering the wounded, because his medical studies meant he was more useful at that than shouldering a rifle in the trenches. Later on he was dispatched to other fronts.

In December 1937, during the icy cold of the battle for Teruel, Victor Dalmau was assigned to a heroic ambulance giving first aid to the wounded, while the driver, Aitor Ibarra, an immortal Basque who was constantly singing to himself and laughing out loud to mock death, somehow managed to maneuver the vehicle along shattered roads. Dalmau trusted that the Basque’s good luck, which had allowed him to emerge unscathed from a thousand close scrapes, would be sufficient for both of them. To avoid being bombed, they often traveled at night. If there was no moon, somebody walked in front of the ambulance with a flashlight to illuminate the road, while Victor attended to the injured inside the vehicle with what limited supplies he had, by the light of another flashlight. They constantly defied the obstacle-strewn terrain and temperatures many degrees below freezing, crawling forward slowly like worms through the ice, sinking into the snow, pushing the ambulance up slopes or out of ditches and bomb craters, dodging lengths of twisted iron and frozen bodies of mules, amid strafing by Nationalist machine guns and bombs from the German Condor Legion planes swooping low above their heads. Nothing could distract Victor Dalmau from his determination to keep the men in his care alive, even if they were bleeding to death in front of his eyes. He was infected by the crazy stoicism of Aitor Ibarra, who always drove on untroubled, and had a joke for every occasion.

A Long Petal of the Sea
by by Isabel Allende

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0593157494
  • ISBN-13: 9780593157497