First Published In “Chicks In Capes”
“I solemnly pledge myself before God and in the presence of this assembly, to pass my life in purity and to practice my profession faithfully. I will abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous, and will not take or knowingly administer any harmful drug. I will do all in my power to maintain and elevate the standard of my profession, and will hold in confidence all personal matters committed to my keeping and all family affairs coming to my knowledge in the practice of my calling. With loyalty will I endeavor to aid the physician, in his work, and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care.”
–The Nightingale Pledge, written by Lystra Gretter in 1893 for the nurses of the Farrand Training School in Detroit
And so Gail Godwin, who had long since scrubbed the blood off her skin, short blond hair, and from under her fingernails, arrived back at work in her blue cotton scrubs and was promptly led to her supervisor Dr. Tikano’s office. Too soon, Dr. Tikano said apologetically, his broad face with its wide pores settling on an expression between awkward and fatherly. We appreciate your enthusiasm, but there is no pressing need for you to come back right now. He fingered some forms on his desk with his thick tan fingers. Extending your leave is not a problem.
“It’s not the money,” Gail replied, leaning forward and twisting slightly to the right in the stiff wooden chair. It was the type of large, leather-upholstered chair one would more commonly find in a den or study, and contrasted sharply with the chrome-and-plastics that were in abundance in St. Francis of Assisi Hospital. The chair was so heavy, Gail could hardly maneuver it to face her supervisor without having to get up and drag it; and of course, she didn’t do that because she never liked to cause a scene or attract attention. It was bad enough she had to beg for her job.
“Don’t you see, ever since I was a little girl I’ve just wanted to help people. It’s in my blood. Nothing is going to make me recover faster than going back to nursing.”
Dr. Tikano sighed and pushed his glasses up on his heavily ridged forehead.
“But you can’t help people unless you are fully recovered.”
The office suddenly felt darker and smaller to Gail; its air hot and difficult to drag in. Outside the glazed and textured glass of the door was Life – the sounds of the busy floor seeming to accentuate the fact of her absence. Gail’s voice was barely audible and caught up in the phlegm of her throat:
“I’m sorry. This isn’t personal, it’s just our policy.” He fidgeted with the papers again. “Believe me, we are on your side. You’re part of the St. Francis family here and there’s nothing we want more than to see you come back at full speed.”
“Sir, I have have nothing to do at home! I feel…useless. I’m not getting better this way. I think…”
And what Gail was going to say was, I think I’m actually getting worse. But she didn’t say that. Because she wanted to go back to work eventually.
*** *** ***
Everybody lies. Or they strategically omit, which is a more passive-aggressive form of lying. But lying doesn’t have to be cruel. Gail was never cruel. But, she knew, she was being thoughtless as of late; detached. She had backed out on having lunch with her good friend Abby Weiss for two months now. They used to go to Carlo’s Cuban every other Wednesday for dinner, but the Incident at the hospital had destroyed all routines for Gail. Abby barely knew what had happened, only that her friend was suddenly no longer working. I’m never giving up on you Gail, Abby seemed to be really saying as she dutifully left phone message after phone message on Gail’s answering machine. She was never insulted by Gail’s retreat; only concerned. And now here Gail was, sitting across from her at Carlo’s Cuban.
“You’ve lost weight,” Abby exclaimed in a tone that was meant to be complimentary but ended up sounding ambivalent. Her radar was up and all over Gail, green eyes silently/desperately trying to pick up any clue regarding her friend’s circumstance.
Gail flashed a small, shy smile at her friend with the curly orange hair and nodded. “I feel great though.”
“Are you eating enough?”
“It’s not the eating, it’s the weights.” Gail carefully pushed back a sleeve on her simple white blouse to reveal a bicep subtly shadowed with muscle.
“Well, I have to keep up my figure somehow.” She quickly rolled back her sleeve and turned to sip on her ice water. “Not lifting patients off of stretchers anymore.” Then Gail added, “Ha ha.” It wasn’t a sarcastic laugh. She always used the actual words: laughing was literally “ha ha,” coughing was the word “cough.” Even when she sneezed, she managed a “SNEEZE!” through the explosion of air and snot. Gail was a little strange; very quiet, very passive, but very nice. And though Abby encouraged Gail so many times in the past to go to a gym, get in shape, get into the step of active life – the sight of the mild woman’s burgeoning muscle was unsettling to her, a minus instead of a reassuring plus.
“How are you, Gail?”
“I’m fine,” Gail said, nodding. “I’m really good. I’ll probably be back on my shifts in a couple of weeks.”
“What happened to you? You told me on the phone – what, a month ago? – that everything was fine, you just had an incident at St. Francis. And then I never heard from you again.”
And so Gail told Abby how one night the EMTs wheeled in a hysterical young woman with striking long black hair and ice-blue eyes, her body covered head-to-toe in blood. She had just been raped, then in depression slashed her own wrists with a fragment of a broken wine glass. They were calling in everybody on the floor for support, because this woman was white-hot in hysterics. Not even the tranks were having an immediate enough effect on her. And as they tried to strap her down, she saw Gail and literally threw herself off the gurney and onto the nurse’s body. I mean: knocked her down, grabbed her flesh, holding on for dear life. Howling in her face, the two helplessly intertwined in a dance of holding on and pushing away, the heavy smell of ammonia and bodily fluids inundating Gail’s nostrils.
Her blood was everywhere on Gail, even inside her mouth. And it was like whatever hysteria gripped this poor woman had then transferred onto Gail from sheer touch alone, because the nurse started screaming as well. Even after they rolled the patient away, Gail was unable to get up from the floor, and still screaming, covered in blood; stranger’s blood, that still smelled of confusion, impotence, and fear. That’s the story Gail told Abby at Carlo’s Cuban, as two steaming plates of pulled pork over white rice and black beans were set before them.
Abby’s hands, folded together prayer-like, covered her mouth in shock:
“Jesus Christ! You must have been terrified!”
“And you know, it’s not like I’m a lightweight and haven’t seen my share of extreme cases.” Gail looked down and pressed her finger into the table’s waxed wood for emphasis, her voice slightly rising. “I remember once…this homeless guy limped in, complaining of severe pain in his feet. I’ll never forget those big, battered black boots he wore. We had to cut the boots off his feet, they were so swollen. And the feet were black, black as the boots. And you could see the bones in his toes. Because his feet were run over by a car weeks before, but he never got help for it. He just kept those boots on.” She speared the pork with her fork as her eyes met Abby’s. “We had to cut those feet off. That was intense. But I dealt with it. I never freaked out before. Until this…until the Incident.”
“Gail, you were totally within your rights to freak out,” Abby reassured, patting her friend’s wrist. “That was a horrible, scary situation. You could have gotten AIDS!”
“But it wasn’t that I was afraid of catching anything, or dying…I just felt so bad for this woman! What she went through! I don’t think I could have handled it either. Some man brutalizing me like that.” Gail shuddered. “I think I’d lose my mind too.” She squished the pulled pork around in the rice, then dropped the fork. “But anyway…I was just in shock, to the point where they suggested I take some time off. Biggest mistake of my life.”
“It’s like when you’re a woman – and doubly as a nurse – you’re not allowed to be emotional. You get emotional once, they see you as a ticking time-bomb, always this weeping, irrational thing. It’s like you always have to be hard. But that’s not what she needed to get well. She didn’t need that hardness. She needed compassion. And I think I became so in-tuned with her distress, my empathy opened so wide, I just fell in. The tragedy of the situation just overwhelmed me.” The cropped-hair blond took another sip of ice water. “Anyway, she’s living in my apartment now.”
Abby made a double-take, her green eyes widening.
“Her name is Lisa.”
*** *** ***
After she left Carlo’s Cuban and said her goodbyes to Abby, Gail decided to head South and stroll through the immigrant section of town. There, in a narrow storefront that sold electronics, CDs from Hong Kong, and assorted Asian weapons, Gail politely inquired about a set of butterfly swords, poking at the lighted glass case under the counter with her finger.
“It’s for my nephew. He’s into that show Dragonball,” Gail explained.
The set seemed like a steal at $30, and she waited patiently as the sales clerk wrapped the items in Chinese newspaper.
With Lisa so broken – and her attacker still at large – Gail felt no choice but to take her in. As she herself would admit, the gesture was not completely without self-interest. Looking after Lisa afforded the nurse the opportunity to practice her craft; to comfort and to heal. Most importantly, it kept Gail’s mind occupied. The months of being out of work and idle had taken their toll, full pay from St. Francis doing little to rob her of the sting of inaction. Perhaps this was all fate, Gail being brought to Lisa to rehabilitate her, and vice-versa.
Besides, Lisa’s attacker was still out there. And if Gail felt strongly about Lisa’s need for support and healing, she felt doubly sure that this evil man needed to be brought to justice. She never felt so strongly and so sure about anything in her whole life. Watching Lisa sit up in bed and cry, cradling her head in arms still bandaged, aroused more than pity but a wholly new emotion for the 32-year-old – the need for vengeance. This animal left her to die. And Gail – knowing all too well the procedures that lay ahead of her, the rape kits, the photos, and eventually the assault on her name as she pressed charges – didn’t trust the legal system to provide Lisa with Justice. She just saw it too many times before: the legion of the battered, the raped, the abused literally roll through the halls of St. Francis; processed, stamped, swabbed.
Gail just wanted vengeance. It didn’t make sense, she knew; to feel so strongly about a stranger’s plight. But if working eight years as a nurse at St. Francis taught her anything, it was that nothing really made a lot of sense. It was all just a jumble of random bodies, with random injuries, and a capricious God who made life-and-death decisions at whim.
Lisa was pleased when she saw that Gail had brought home the butterfly swords.
*** *** ***
“You need a costume,” Lisa told Gail as the two watched The View on Gail’s blue-and-white striped couch. On a TV tray before them was a plate of cookies and one cup of jasmine tea.
The first thing Gail thought of when the stunning black-haired beauty had mentioned “costume” were those cheesy outfits for women the drug store had every Halloween; there must have been at least 8 different “Sexy Nurse” versions. But then she thought:
“You mean, like in a comic book?”
“It’s for the psychological edge,” Lisa said matter-of-factly. “Also, so nobody recognizes you.”
Gail looked confused.
“But aren’t they going to recognize my costume?”
“It’s OK if they remember you – your persona. But not Gail.” Lisa tousled Gail’s short blond hair. “We have to keep Gail safe.”
“Ha ha. I thought the idea was that I was keeping you safe.”
Lisa clicked the remote control, and the TV went black with a quick “bloop.”
“But without you, Gail, there’s nothing.”
*** *** ***
It was difficult for Gail to find a costume store in the middle of April, but finally a female mannequin in a shop window caught her eye. It was standing in front of a purple satin curtain, black sculpted muscles on a leather bustier framed by an ankle-length cape trimmed in metal grommets, arms terminating in elbow-length gloves with cushioned finger-pads. But it was the mask that was the most intriguing: clear plastic eye-sockets with a long, thin, beak-like protrusion under it. Grotesque, to be sure, even comical – but also sort of elegant. And it almost seemed as if the blank, smooth, featureless white face of the dummy under the mask was part of it somehow, an extension of some sort.
Gail noted that the cape might be too cumbersome when she tracked down Lisa’s rapist and served him justice. But the mask and rest of the outfit could definitely work. In fact, she remembered that there was a pair of thigh-high boots at Shoes News that might pull together the outfit nicely.
And then she realized, embarrassed:
“Oh! This is a sex store.”
*** *** ***
The red light on Gail’s answer machine flashed in time with the beep:
“Hi Gail, this is Abby. Just calling to see how you’re doing.”
Gail, who was fully dressed in her costume and delivering quick, gentle punches into Lisa’s waiting palms, instinctively stopped and regarded her friend’s voice with a jerk of her masked head. Lisa frowned and tapped the woman’s shoulder firmly. Gail still looked so small and awkward in the outfit; perhaps she was still too weak?
“C’mon,” Lisa snapped, “no distractions!”
“I should really answer that…”
“She’s not going to help you, Gail. She’s just going to do what the hospital did. Tell you you’re crazy.”
“Dr. Tikano never told me I was crazy,” the blond woman interjected in a shaky voice, pulling off her mask with some difficulty. Her hair was matted and sweaty. “He just said I needed rest.”
Lisa flashed a broad, toothy smile and gestured widely with her arms. “Be a big girl Gail – you should know by now that what people say and what they think are often two completely different things.” And then that tall, shockingly beautiful woman threw back her long mane of jet-black hair and laughed. It made Gail feel terrible and confused; even dizzy.
“You see, Gail? This is how real people laugh. They don’t go ‘ha ha.’ Only comic book characters do that. Where did you learn to be a human being, Gail? From a comic book?”
Then Lisa threw a sudden punch at Gail, and smiled again as it was automatically blocked by Gail’s palm; smiled with big, perfect, clenched teeth as her fist vibrated in Gail’s rigid, gloved, talon-like hand. And the room buzzed with a glorious energy.
*** *** ***
In the end, despite extensive planning regarding the building’s layout, Gail decided to get into Justin’s apartment by simply knocking on the door. Lying at her feet, as she waited the seconds that felt like hours for him to slide the eye-hole cover, were two duffel bags. Justin, Lisa’s rapist, seemed not to be alarmed in the slightest by Gail’s appearance on his doormat. In fact, the tall man with the black hair, blue eyes, and unusually large mouth looked like he was slightly aroused, and didn’t even seem to notice as she stuck the syringe through his navy blue T-shirt into his abdomen with the quick casual authority one might reserve for an embroidery stitch. Then a heavy drop of white spit slid from his dumbstruck lips as he lurched to fall forward.
*** *** ***
And she announced to him as she wore the costume, the handle of a butterfly sword clenched in each textured black glove:
I AM VENGEANCE! I AM NIGHTINGALE!
AND YOU’LL NEVER HURT ANOTHER WOMAN AGAIN!
*** *** ***
Dr. Tikano beamed at Gail, his thick tan hands gesturing at her as if performing a magic trick, as if she was a bunny or length of brightly-colored handkerchiefs that managed to jump out of a top hat.
“Look at you! You look great!”
Gail Godwin, dressed in her blue cotton scrubs, took a mock bow in her seat and grinned.
“Well, thank you, sir. I feel great.”
“With that color in your cheeks, it looks like you’ve been vacationing in Hawaii.”
“Well, not exactly Hawaii, sir – but I had a great time. You were totally right. I just needed rest.”
“Of course you did, of course you did.” Dr. Tikano nodded and signed a form. “Well, everything is in order…” He reached over his desk and shook her hand. “…welcome back!”
“Oh, thank you! This is just…I feel ecstatic.” She jumped out of her seat. “I can’t wait to start!”
“Oh, hold on there,” the rotund man called after her, holding a stack of folded papers with a rubber-band around them. “Just one more thing. I thought you’d be happy to know that St. Francis is paying all the bills. You don’t even have to worry about the insurance, forms…none of that. We’re completely absorbing the cost.”
Gail squinted in confusion.
“Your medical bills. We asked accounts payable to just hold them for you…here.” He handed the stack in his hand to Gail. “This can just be for your records. But they’re all null and void. We’re covering it. Just something to let you know how much the St. Francis family appreciates having you around.”
Gail drifted into the tiled glass hallway, thumbing through the bills, going through the list of atrocities done to her body, feeling as if her head was floating off her body like a balloon.
*** *** ***
When Gail arrived home, Lisa was sitting on the couch and sewing fringes on the undersides of the gloves. The raven-haired beauty put down her work and smiled, waving at the woman with one finely-manicured hand. The bandages had long since gone, and there was hardly even a mark from that horrible night.
“Hey, sweetie! How was your first day?”
“Oh, my God,” Gail replied, ignoring Lisa’s greeting and instead poking her gently on the arm; fingertips lingering on warm olive skin. “It feels completely real.” Tears began to stream down her face as she rolled back her own sleeves and noticed, seemingly for the first time, the jagged raised marks over her wrists. “I’m completely insane.”
Lisa’s face hardened, the warmth draining from her sky-blue eyes.
“Gail,” she said calmly but firmly, “you’re not insane. Stop exaggerating.”
“YOU DON’T EXIST!” the blond screamed back at her reeling away from her touch as if it was diseased. “I checked with the records office at St. Francis and you were never checked in there – I was. It was me! You don’t exist!”
Lisa stood up and started walking towards Gail.
“Of course I exist, Gail. You felt me, right?”
“W-why didn’t you tell me?! Why didn’t you tell me what was really going on?”
“Gail, what you need to understand is that there are things out there bigger than you and your problems. Yes, you were hurt and that’s horrible. Truly: it’s horrible. But think of all that you can do to turn that negative into a positive. It doesn’t have to end with Justin. Injustices are happening to women all the time, in every part of the world. You have a spark in you, Gail – despite all your flaws, all your fears. You have a spark that sets you apart but also gives you a greater responsibility. And that spark is me, Gail.”
Gail backed into a shelf on the wall, wood painfully slamming against the back of her throat, books shaking. This familiar presence that had co-existed so perfectly with her for the last couple of months…this beautiful, smart, vibrant woman who she watched heal before her very eyes, regaining a dignity and stature that made her resemble some sort of Amazonian princess…this miracle…
…it was all part of a diseased mind, Gail thought. And I, at her bidding, crippled Justin…
“And he crippled your soul,” Lisa retorted, thoughts as words in a dialogue that was either completely silent or painfully one-sided. “If you had succeeded in killing yourself, you would have done him a great favor. So I say: a cripple for a cripple. A death for a death. That’s true, primal justice, the wisdom of the ancients…”
Lisa was now pressed up against her body and pinning her against the wall. It was as if Gail could feel her entire bone structure weigh against hers, oppressive like a metal gate closing in, her extreme beauty equally oppressive in its absolute, God-like quality.
“J-just…get out of my house…stay away…”
“You need to take a stand for once in your goddamn life, Gail! The man’s world won’t help you – they’re the ones making up the rules! We need to be harder than them, better than them, more decisive than them! And it starts…BY SCARS!”
“GET AWAY FROM ME!!!”
Gail knocked the taller woman onto the floor and began to hit her, straddling her body; she beat and beat and beat her until there was hardly nothing left – not a face, no blood, just a fading outline. She rubbed her red and raw knuckles and thought in relief, I’ve gotten rid of her – then shakily got back on her feet, holding onto a chair for support. There was no trace of Lisa, and this encouraged Gail greatly, because she felt it was the first step to getting truly well. The next step was, of course, burning the costume – but when she went into her closet to pull it out of her duffel bag, it wasn’t there.
And that’s when she felt that horrible, crushing grip on her shoulder – and faced It, that featureless form, the costume as if alive, a bird-like mask with a razor-sharp beak on the white smooth face of a mannequin. This mannequin, its touch was strong, as if it could break bone with minimal effort. It was alive. And Gail twisted and screamed in its grip.
“I am Nightingale!” the form with the bird-mask said. Gail could feel herself disappearing within it:becoming one, then becoming none.
*** *** ***
The house felt emptier and smaller with Lisa gone. And Gail took to sick again; I put her to bed and decided to take care of her myself. I might have poked fun at her once in a while in the past, but I always did like her. She was a good person. I only wanted her to get stronger and realize her destiny – and now she will always remain safe and cared for.
It was all up to me, now. Me: Nightingale. I was the only one left to carry on the work.
But it wasn’t too bad: the hospital provided me with everything I needed – a means to a livelihood, drugs, weapons. But most of all, the People – the people who come to me broken, needing more than stitches or surgery. I provide vengeance to those to require it, who require it by the fact of tragic circumstances that no human asks for or deserves.
Because I am Nightingale.