At night, I move among the beds.
In this city, the streets are corridors branching
into alleys that run between bodies
wrapped in gauze. I speak this language
native to wounds: friable, purulent, granulating, necrotic.
We say serous and mean straw-colored. We agree this
drainage indicates healing. Serosanguinous, still a fine rosé.
At the foot of each parked bed, I listen to report
from the last shift, streetlights turned as low
as our whispers, ventilator breaths bellow
in pre-set rhythms. Mostly women, wearing sunny yellow
scrubs, gather at the station, sing-song voices
rise and fall, jazz syncopated with chirping monitors.
Code Red cuts in on the PA system overhead.
We mix morphine with gallows humor. We say
I love the smell of blood in the morning. The circle
disperses with dressing kits, saline flushes,
IV lines free of air bubbles. We piggyback narcotics
in the main line, wait for heart rates to drop,
and travel with our patients to the most exquisite
locations. Anywhere but here. We deep breathe,
count down together while we unwrap.
In this land, I am an expert. I know Pseudomonas
by its sweet but putrid smell, note labored breathing
from across the room. I’ve cauterized bleeders with a touch
of silver nitrate, made a study of the subtle color
shifts from air hunger. I’ve held hands with patients
who’ve just received a terminal diagnosis.
Great truths were made intimate in the yawning
chest cavity where I held rib-spreaders. Flesh and blood,
yes, but also animating spirit. Bodies that turn to wax
at the moment of death. In this land, I’ve seen the dead
come back to life—a young boy mid-brain-death
protocol, his hypothermic corpse flooded warm.
Decades after I’ve left the old neighborhood,
I stand on every corner, waiting in the shadows:
I map the bloodstains remaining on my clothes.