The morning after all the patients from their most recent rush have been operated on, Margaret sits down next to Father Mulcahy at breakfast. Both Margaret and Francis are so bundled up they can barely move, because heating the mess tent is a low priority while their supply line is still cut off. Francis has just downed one cup of coffee and is already on to another, both to try to keep warm and to compensate for how little sleep he’s gotten recently. Margaret and Francis are the only people at the table; most everyone else has wandered off somewhere else to sleep and/or drink by now. “I hope you don’t mind my saying this, father, but you look tired,” Margaret says.
“Well, it’s a small price to pay for all the good work we did yesterday,” Francis replies. Even as he’s saying it, he thinks, Oh, what does that even mean? He’s reached the point of exhaustion where he only has the energy to speak in platitudes. Usually if he uses his “priest voice” when he does so, people don’t seem to notice. He can’t help wondering, Did I really do any ‘good work’ yesterday? What did I contribute? I offered people orange juice after they donated blood. He’d even done a little blessing over the orange juice when no one was looking, which had only made him feel more ridiculous.
When Francis had first arrived at the 4077, he’d been completely unprepared for what greeted him. He can still vividly remember his first time in the operating room, and the first time they’d been understaffed and needed him to assist. When he’d gloved up and put his hands into a man’s wounds for the first time, he’d thought of Jesus. Of course he had; how could he not. The only gore he’d really known before Korea had been the repetition of a single instant of violence a thousand different ways, a framing in wood and stone and glass, ruby-red blood dripping down one man’s forehead like wax down a candle. But Jesus’ crucifixion was a gore that remained physically static even as it enacted spiritual transformation. Each year, Francis spoke of the ascension and rebirth while Jesus remained frozen behind him, wounds still open, drops of blood ever as they were on his forehead.
In the operating room, though, blood pooled in wounds until skin was sewn back together. No patient was a Prometheus, a man whose body would continue to provide another miracle of healing ad infinitum. The doctors worked against the clock to save each person, and even for the many who survived, their wounds did not open the way toward higher understanding or a release from sin. Their injuries were simply damage that each soldier had to learn how to live with, one way or another.
So it wasn’t just the physically horrifying aspect of the gore that Francis had been unprepared for, when he first arrived. It was how to address the aftermath of it. He had some analogs for how to talk to the patients—though he’d never been in operating rooms before Korea, he’d often offered counsel to sick or dying parishioners. But the war which had led to these men’s injuries, the war which they were sent back out into once they got better—that made the job of Francis’ counseling harder.
And it wasn’t just the conversations with patients that challenged him at first. Initially, he failed even more in his attempts to make headway with the doctors and nurses. Not only were they facing a much more psychologically taxing reality than his parishioners back home, but almost none of them were Catholics. He couldn’t speak to them in the language most familiar to him, the shorthand of saints and bible verses and ritual. He’d tried, for a while, only to earn their distrust. Everyone was nice enough to him, but he recognized in their patronizing tones a disregard for most of what he said.
Funnily enough, it was Trapper who had hung around him the most in the early days. Trapper had been raised Catholic, and he still spoke its language; he’d echo it back to Francis in a gently joking manner, in a way that made it clear that, though he no longer believed, he understood where Francis was coming from. Trapper never said as much, but Francis soon realized that Trapper found it comforting to hang around him, to be reminded that the church was a higher power whose rules he didn’t have to follow, unlike the military’s. Because even in the early days, when Francis had made the mistake of speaking to everyone in Catholic terms, he’d never been out to convert anyone. At first, it stung, realizing that Trapper found him comforting because he saw him as ineffectual, because spiritual concerns did not hold weighted reality for Trapper in the way that military or medical ones did. But once Francis saw how Trapper understood his shorthand, Francis began to understand Trapper’s. Francis understood how his faith and Trapper’s humor functioned in much the same way, over here; they were the schemas which allowed them to live with the suffering they witnessed.
When Francis turned to his faith in order to reckon with the war, it wasn’t because he was searching for some higher purpose to it. There was none. He knew that. When Francis referenced God or his faith or a bible verse, it was never to excuse or explain the man-made atrocity. It was simply that mundane language fell short of being able to address the war. The language of God, on the other hand, possessed a hyperreality, for Francis; the Bible carried not just the mundane meanings of the words but the fact that God had written them, the ghost of something beyond comprehension and the weight of two-thousand-odd years of ritual associated with them.
When he used the Bible to speak about the war, he wasn’t saying he found the war necessary, the suffering part of some higher cause. It was that he found it inexplicable, and he left the inexplicable to God. He lacked the language to fully describe the reality in which he found himself, and to speak of God was to imply that these were events beyond human comprehension. But, in Francis’s experience, the foxhole threatens to make atheists of everyone, and he soon realized he would get nowhere speaking in Christian terms to those who did not believe. What he found comforting, others did not. As he got closer to Trapper, Francis realized that humor was the way that not just Trapper, but also many others in camp, expressed the inexpressible.
Once Francis understood that, he adapted his language to some odd hybrid of the two methods. It wasn’t that he’d been humorless before, but back home he’d always been careful not to joke about faith to his congregants, because his job was to provide a bedrock of stability for them. But in Korea, he began to relay the scripture most often through jokes. He’d realize he was accidentally blocking the sun as Henry tried to tan, and as he moved away he’d say, “Let there be light.” He’d offer up the “prayer” of, “Now I lay me down to sleep, a bag of peanuts at my feet. If I should die before I wake, give them to my brother Jake.” It allowed everyone around him to realize that he wasn’t trying to offer up scripture or ritual as an explanation, but merely as a comfort. The joke of the prayer, he hoped, allowed him to nod toward something familiar without being overbearing or imposing. He wanted to comfort without looking too comfortable, to say: what’s happening isn’t right, but we’ve got to get through it anyway.
But part of what humor did for everyone else at the 4077, it could not do for him; humor drew them closer to each other. For Trapper and Hawkeye in particular, it seemed the main currency of their friendship. It was a way of saying: this is who I am with my walls down as far as I’ll let them go. This is who I am outside of the rigidity of the system we’re stuck in. Francis could not afford himself the luxury of friendship. Friendship required vulnerability, and for him to be too vulnerable would be to destroy his authority as the camp chaplain. He shouldn’t act like he had all the answers, but neither could he throw in his towel with the rest of them. The depth of his own uncertainties had to remain hidden.
Because even many atheists had found themselves in Francis’ tent after some particularly hard day. To continue to offer comfort to them, Francis had to continue to appear as someone who was never quite as lost himself. When there was a crisis in the operating room, it wasn’t so much the content of what he said that helped; it was really just his ability to remain calm in and of itself. He hoped that if there was one thing he offered everyone at the 4077, it was his presence as someone who could keep his faith no matter the circumstances; even if it wasn’t a faith they shared, it might still help them realize that there was hope for them to find something they could hold onto just as hard.
And so he does his best to keep the worst of his doubts, his exhaustion, and his foul tempers to himself, to remain, hopefully, a quiet but grounding presence. So when Margaret tells him he looks tired, his first reaction is not to appreciate her concern but to worry that he’s not doing his job right.
But of course Margaret won’t let him shrug off her question. Instead, she gives him a long, hard look. Francis isn’t used to being the object of her scrutiny; usually that honor goes to Hawkeye and/or Trapper. But now, with neither doctor anywhere to be found, Francis finds himself under her gaze. “I know we’re all tired, but you look especially so,” she says. “I’m a nurse. It’s my job to worry about whether or not you’re taking care of yourself.”
Her comment surprises Francis; he knows that the doctors’ and nurses’ jobs are indeed all about caring for people, but he’s never been one of their patients. Still, he decides that telling her a little bit of the truth can’t hurt. “Oh, I’m just not used to sharing a tent with so many other people, is all,” he says. “Things were… a bit rambunctious last night.”
“Pierce and McIntyre, I presume?” Margaret says.
“Yes, well, they’re quite the energetic pair. And I do wish they’d learn to get along better with Frank.” Although with the way Frank acts, I can’t entirely blame them, Francis thinks. He learned long ago that one of the hallmarks of priesthood is that, while you can love everyone in your flock, that won’t necessarily mean that you like them all. Of course, he keeps this thought to himself.
“Oh, those brutes,” Margaret says. “They ought to treat their superior officer with more respect.” Then she blushes, just a little. Francis pretends not to notice. Back home, one of his congregants committing adultery would have been a great cause of concern to him. Here, in the face of everything else they have to contend with, he figures God will forgive him for keeping it low on his list of priorities to be addressed. Margaret rushes on, “But I know how you must feel. It was a bit of an adjustment for me, too, spending the night with the nurses. Even though they’re all lovely girls.” Francis almost thinks he sees her blushing again, just slightly, although this time he’s truly not sure why.
“Yes, well, I suppose spending the night with the other men yesterday was just another one of God’s little tests,” Francis says. As soon as he says it, it’s his turn to blush. He’s barely able to admit it to himself, let alone someone else, but it wasn’t just the bickering that made last night uncomfortable, although he does wish they’d quieted down sooner. Sharing a room with other men, even in his own bed, well…
Francis had gone to seminary for a lot of reasons. First and foremost was his desire to help other people. But underneath that, well… there was some relief, to him, in being told he couldn’t marry. He wasn’t sure why; all he knew was that the thought of building a life with a woman had never appealed to him. He’d taken it, at the time, as just another sign that he had been meant for the priesthood. But coming to Korea, well.
As soon as he’d met Hawkeye, he’d liked him, even before Hawkeye really seemed to return the sentiment. This in and of itself wasn’t out of the ordinary; priests are, though they aren’t wont to admit it, just as human as anyone else. Francis had always had favorite congregants, although he tried never to show it or give them preference. But with Hawkeye, the pull was different. When Francis had started to feel like he’d cracked the code, when he began joking back to Trapper and Hawkeye, that’s when Hawkeye had come around to him. And that’s when Francis had realized the full extent of his feelings for Hawkeye.
He still remembers how he felt the first time he made a joke, and Hawkeye laughed. It’s a feeling Francis still gets anytime Hawkeye says something particularly irreligious and gives Francis that devious little glance of his, like he’s trying to see if he can get away with it or not. Whenever Hawkeye looks at him like that, Francis always has a hard time meeting his gaze. He tries not to walk the line between laughing too much and not laughing at all, tries to offer a reply witty enough to show Hawkeye he doesn’t mind, but not so witty that he falls into the sin of pride. Because Francis finds himself wanting to show off just a little for Hawkeye, to break past the veneer of his priesthood that Hawkeye treats with a bemused acceptance and say, Look, there’s a whole living, breathing person underneath all this. A person you might like more than you think you would. A person who likes you more than he knows he should. A person who, after years of piety, finds himself preoccupied with concerns of the flesh.
But he won’t say that, of course. Instead, he’s careful to laugh just enough and not too much, to look Hawkeye’s way only half the times that he wants to. But these thoughts that he’ll never say aloud, that he scarcely allows himself to acknowledge, mean that it’s more true than Margaret can ever know when he tells her that last night felt like a test. He couldn’t help himself; he’d broken out that parody of a nighttime prayer that he hadn’t said since he was a child, and he’d found himself ashamed by how delighted he was when Hawkeye laughed the hardest out of anyone upon his recital of it.
“You should spend the night with the nurses tonight,” Margaret says suddenly, rousing Francis out of his train of thought.
He’s thrown for a loop. This is pretty much the last suggestion he’d expect the major to make, given her strict adherence to almost all forms of propriety, but she says it so confidently that he almost agrees immediately. After all, he’d joked about spending the night with the nurses himself last night. He’d been deliriously tired, but he’d still been shocked at himself for expressing the thought aloud. Just as he’s shocked at hearing the suggestion from Margaret now. “With the nurses?” he repeats. “I hardly think that’s the solution. You kicked Klinger out last night, and at least he dressed the part.”
“Yes, but he certainly hasn’t taken a vow of celibacy, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
Margaret, like everyone else in the camp, attaches the apology almost on reflex, as though Francis’ own vow makes him unaware of or unable to acknowledge the goings on around him. As always, though, he chooses to play the role they’ve built for him, to slot into their idea of priesthood. So, glossing past her comment, he merely says, “Still, I hardly think the nurses would take too kindly to me barging in on them.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t be barging in on them. You could spend the evening with the men while we’re all getting ready for bed, and I could come fetch you once everyone is well and properly clothed in their nightgowns and tucked in bed. I’ll ask them if they mind.” As Margaret’s saying this, Kellye walks by on her way out of the mess tent. Margaret grabs at her elbow. “Kellye, I’ve got a question,” she says.
“Yes, major?” Kellye asks, in that tone of slight trepidation that all the nurses take with Margaret.
“Given the upset in the sleeping arrangements, and the kind of uncouth behavior we know Pierce and McIntyre are wont to exhibit, would you mind if Father Mulcahy shared our tent for the night?”
Kellye looks surprised for just a moment, but then she shrugs. “It’d be fine with me,” she says.
“Oh, really,” Francis says. “It’s unnecessary.”
“You’ll be the first decent man any of us have spent the night with in a long while, father,” Kellye says, then giggles just a little, like she can’t believe she said it. Francis raises his eyebrows, giving her his practiced expression that conveys just the right amount of innocent surprise, a sort of, Oh, whatever could you be referring to? face that works well in these kinds of situations.
“See?” Margaret says. “That settles it. Come spend the night with us. You need your rest just as much as anybody else in this camp. Now that we’ve finished the operations, you’re almost in more demand than the doctors. Don’t make me get them to write a prescription for you to get a good night’s sleep.”
Maybe because of just how he felt sharing a tent with Hawkeye last night; maybe because he’s learned that, at the 4077, often the best thing he can do is acquiesce to whichever role others want him to play, as long as it seems harmless; maybe because he really could use a good night’s sleep – whatever the reason, he finds himself agreeing. “Alright, then,” he says. “If you insist.”
“I do,” Margaret says. Case closed. End of argument. It’s nice, for once, to feel himself taken care of.
Francis spends the rest of the day offering spiritual counseling to the patients that want it. The longer he’s been over here, the better he’s gotten at surmising, even just from a glance, which ones might find the most comfort in speaking with him. He knows how to read people pretty well, even very early into their first conversation. To guess who will want specific Bible passages to study, who will find an admission of his own doubts comforting, and who will like it if he asks a lot of questions. Some of them just want to talk about their hometowns. The thing of it is—what Francis learned when he was still in seminary—is that you can’t make a trick out of it, out of caring. Sure, there’s a method to choosing what general conversation tactic you’ll employ, but you have to form a connection with the person that comes from a genuine place.
In their work, he knows it helps the doctors to be as objective as possible, to see not the whole person but the pieces, the isolated organ, the problem of the heart or the liver that needs to be stitched back together. In some ways, Francis does the same; not that he remains objective, necessarily, but he, too, finds a piece of each patient to focus on. He picks a part of them to love with as much conviction as he would the whole of them, if he had the chance to know the patients for more than a few days. He invests himself in pieces of their lives where he might most help, and then he says goodbye, unsure what will become of them. Love ‘em and leave ‘em, he jokes, just to himself, on nights when he’s especially worried over some young man that’s just been shipped back to the front. Humor to soften the blow. It’s exhausting.
Today is no different, and what he wants more than anything is to drink a cup of tea in his tent by himself. When he’s alone, he gets to be a person, not a priest. But he knows that won’t be possible, not tonight. So instead, he makes his way back into the swamp, coat pulled tight to his ears. It’s not late enough for anyone to be asleep yet, so they’re all huddled as close to the stove as possible, wrapped in about three blankets each. There’s a general exclaiming of welcomes as he enters, along with a few admonitions for him to shut the door. Hawkeye gestures for Francis to come sit down in an empty chair next to him.
“We heard you got yourself an in with the nurses, you sly dog,” Hawkeye says, raising his eyebrows at Francis.
“Oh, well…” Francis says, temporarily unable to finish the sentence. He’s dead tired, and the expression on Hawkeye’s face almost undoes him. Still, Francis sits down next to him.
Trapper, seated on Francis’ other side, elbows Francis lightly in the side. “If I’d have known priesthood was the way to get in good with the ladies, maybe I’d have stuck with the church myself,” he says. Francis thinks of about a million responses to the joke, none of which he can say now unless he plans to give up his vestments.
“It’s bad enough that you two have to talk so crudely under normal circumstances, but really, can’t you show the father some more respect?” Frank snaps. In some ways, Francis is grateful that Frank’s comment saves him from having to offer a reply of his own. But he regrets the way it seems to inject a strained formality into a room full of men who just want to relax, finally, after a hard day.
“They don’t mean it, father,” Henry says. “We all know you’re a standup guy.”
“Well, thank you,” Francis says. “To be honest, I’m still not quite sure I should accept Margaret’s invitation.”
“You’re crazy if you think anyone has a choice when it comes to following Margaret’s orders,” Trapper says.
“Every time Henry tries to disobey her, she goes straight to one general or another,” Hawkeye says. “So if you try it, I wouldn’t be surprised if she ends up marching right into the Vatican and demanding an audience with the pope himself.”
Francis laughs his careful laugh at that, although he truly does love the image of Margaret demanding to speak to the pope. If anyone could get an audience with him through sheer force of will alone, it’d be her. “Have we got a card game going?” Francis asks. Playing cards is when he feels most at ease with the men. He always says his winnings will go to the orphans, which is true, but, pious motivation out of the way, the game equalizes them. No one shows him any deference. Orphans be damned, they’re all playing to win. And Francis is, too. He can bluff, although he never cheats; he can work against the other’s best interests, distrust them. It’s nice to have little self-contained moments where he doesn’t have to worry about how to be the best person he can be.
“We have not got a card game going, but we could certainly start one up. That is, if no one’s used the cards as fuel for the fire yet,” Hawkeye says. He gets up, three blankets still wrapped firmly around him, and begins to look through the swamp. “Hey, Trap, where’d you last see our cards?”
The one small question, one that’s not even directed at him, cuts Francis to the core. It’s a reminder that Hawkeye and Trapper so share their lives with one another that they no longer even bother to distinguish who owns what. A reminder that, whenever they misplace something, they always have someone there to ask about it, because their lives are so intertwined. Francis, of course, can always ask Saint Anthony, but Saint Anthony doesn’t tend to talk back.
“I think they’re under your bed,” Trapper says. “I saw them yesterday in a pile of socks.”
Hawkeye looks under his bed, then triumphantly holds up a pack of cards. The game begins, and Francis gets so caught up in it that he’s startled when Margaret flings open the door to the swamp about an hour later. With her entrance, unlike with his earlier, everyone forgoes the welcomes and cuts right to yelling at her to close the door. She rolls her eyes, stepping inside. “Hello,” she says. “Pierce. Frank. McIntyre.” She’s careful to nod at all of them with a neutral expression. “Well, father, everyone’s good and decent in the nurse’s tent.”
“Right. Well,” Francis says. He still feels almost as though he’s doing something wrong. But when he thinks about how staying here will mean lying in a dark tent with Hawkeye mere feet away, he decides this is a “lesser of two evils” situation. He resists the urge to cross himself as he stands up.
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Hawkeye tells him, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively at Francis. Trapper elbows Hawkeye in the side.
“As long as you promise not to do anything I wouldn’t do,” Francis replies. Even as he says it, he worries about the joke, but everyone in the tent just laughs at it.
“Night, father!” they call.
Margaret ushers him out of the swamp and quickly across the compound, into the nurse’s tent. “Hi, father,” they say, giggling a bit. They’re all already in bed but don’t look like they’re about to go to sleep. They’ve got on hair curlers and face creams; Kellye is painting Ginger’s nails, Margie is reading a book, and Leslie is flipping idly through a magazine. Margaret gestures to an empty bed next to the door, then begins climbing over the other nurses’ cots to get back to her own. The cots are packed so close together that there’s not really floor space on which to walk.
“Hello, ladies,” Francis says, settling down onto the cot. He’s surprised by just how comfortable he feels in the tent. Growing up, he and sister, Catherine, were pretty inseparable. She was never incredibly feminine; she was always more concerned about being in shape for basketball than she was about how her nails or hair looked. But merely being in the nurses’ tent as they’re winding down for the night reminds him of the countless nights he and Catherine spent passing the time in one another’s rooms. Often, they were content just to be in the same room as one another, not talking much but reading their own books in silence. Occasionally, they’d look up when they found a passage that they wanted to read out loud to the other person, or to ask an idle question.
Most of the men at the 4077 make Francis feel slightly off-balance, if he’s being honest. They’re almost all predisposed to some sort of posturing or another, seeming to feel the need to either play into or comically subvert a particular type of masculinity which Francis has always felt entirely disconnected from. Whenever he’s contemplated the reason for his own disconnect, he finds himself falling into a circular pattern of logic; is it because he entered the priesthood that his understanding of his gender is different, or has he always, on some level, felt this way, and it’s just another reason that motivated him to choose the profession that he did?
He remembers, even as a young kid, re-reading Galatians 3:28. There is neither male nor female. Back around the time he and Catherine were getting ready for their confirmations, they’d often talk about things like that, about Bible passages that they felt like they were reading differently than anyone else around them, have conversations that they instinctively knew they weren’t supposed to be having. Conversations that they still pick back up whenever they see each other in person. Neither of them has ever been wont to write such questions in a letter, though, even before the army was reading their mail.
Not being able to see Catherine for so long would be bad enough without further complications, but the added fact of his… feelings… about Hawkeye makes it worse. These are not feelings he would confess even if there were a bishop around. But he would tell Catherine. In some ways, his relationship with her is part of what makes him believe in God; through her, he’s experienced unconditional love, a microcosm of what God’s love must be like. Still, in this instance, he’s more confident in his ability to be forgiven by his sister than he is in his ability to be forgiven by God. If he could only talk to her about it, he knows they could sort it all out. As it is, he’s left to include in his letters to her a pointed reference to a Biblical passage or two, sans any commentary, and hope that she sees through to what he’s trying to convey. At least with her, the shorthand still seems to work, but it’s not the same as a face-to-face conversation.
All this to say that it’s nice, being in the nurses’ tent. Normally, because he’s a priest, he tends to be excluded from their world. They’re either coming to him in his official capacity, or they’re assisting in surgery, or they’re caught up in some conversation with a doctor or each other that he can tell he’s not meant to be a part of. He’s not one of the women, and so they don’t tend to draw him into the politics and conversation that they have with each other, but he’s not a man in the traditional sense either; that is, he’s not on the market, someone to be flirted with. He plays the piano so the others can dance. But it’s for the very reason that he is so often excluded from their inner world that they now seem so at ease around him.
He pulls out a copy of some of Hildegard von Bingen’s collected writings. He returns to her often in times of crisis; her work is so full of conviction. She didn’t just believe in God, she was granted visions which seem to have an almost visceral presence in her writings, cosmic eggs and rings of fire and bolts of lightning whose reality she does not doubt and which point toward God. Francis, on the other hand, lives in an age when miracles and revelation are done, where his wavering faith is all he has. He expects to just read and go to sleep, but to his surprise, the nurses pull him into conversation.
“We have some extra curlers if you want to put your hair up,” Leslie jokes with him.
“I don’t think I have the face to pull it off,” he jokes back.
“Aw, come on, father, you’ve got a great face,” Margie says, then kind of glances at Margaret, as if worried she’ll get reprimanded for the comment. Margaret doesn’t say anything, instead opening up a book of her own to start reading.
“You swear off women only to end up in a tent full of them,” Kellye says. “I guess the war does funny things to us all.”
“Well, the Lord works in mysterious ways,” Francis says.
“I’m guessing this is your first all-girl sleepover?” Leslie says.
“Actually, I was quite Augustinian before I joined the priesthood,” Francis jokes. “You know, indulging in all sorts of behavior worthy of the earlier books of Confessions.”
They all give him blank looks, except for Margaret, who sort of snorts a little. Francis says, “Just joking. No, no all-girl sleepovers. They don’t cover this sort of thing in seminary.”
“I think we’d better make sure we show him how much fun they can be,” Ginger says to the other nurses. “If you’re not going to do anything with your hair, you should at least let Kellye paint your nails after she’s finished with mine. She’s the best.” Ginger takes her free hand, the one that Kellye’s already finished, and wiggles her fingers, showing off the pale pink nail polish.
Before Francis has the chance to reply, Leslie and Margie squeal. “Wouldn’t that just be the wildest,” Leslie says.
“I’ve got gold polish around here somewhere,” Kellye says. “I could do little crosses for you. And we’ve got nail polish remover, so we could take it off right after.”
“Oh, leave him be,” Margaret says. “He’s sleeping here so he can get more peace and quiet, not so you can all harass him.”
The nurses all look cowed. Francis had said it as a joke, earlier, but it was true: they really didn’t cover proper etiquette for sharing a tent with a bunch of nurses in seminary. The continued emphasis in the church of the separation of people by gender (nunneries versus monasteries, and so forth) was something he’d never quite been on board with. It felt, to him, like perhaps this particular practice of the church was not divinely-inspired, but rather driven by the men in the institution, although he’d never say as much to anyone besides his sister. So maybe it’s because he wants all the nurses to feel comfortable, but maybe it’s because there’s a part of him that does want to experience a little bit of an all-girls sleepover, a part of him that is curious about how his nails would look painted. Whatever the reason, Francis finds himself saying, “No, actually, you can paint my nails.”
The nurses all just kind of look at each other for a moment, astonished. “Are you sure?” Kellye says.
“What am I here for, if not to boost morale?” Francis tells her. “And it seems like you’d all find this pretty delightful. Although, next time, if I’m smart, I’ll raffle off tickets beforehand for who gets to do the honors. Then I could give the proceeds to the orphans.” When in doubt, it’s always good to fall back on a reference to the orphans to remind everyone that he’s still a good priest.
“Oh, I’ll donate ten dollars to the orphans without a raffle just to see Kellye paint them,” Margie says.
“That’s too kind,” Francis says. Margie really does start looking through her purse after she says it.
“Oh, I’m so excited,” Kellye says, getting so distracted that she looks up while still applying polish to one of Ginger’s nails, doing a messy job of it. “I’ll make sure they look really nice, father.”
“Yeah, but in the meantime, don’t hurry through mine and mess them up!” Ginger says.
“Whoops!” Kellye says. “Don’t worry, you know I can fix it. Where’s a cotton ball?” She begins to look around the tent, but Leslie spots them on the dresser next to her cot first, grabbing one and handing it over to Kelley.
“Oh, you’re fine,” Ginger says, taking the cotton ball from her and fixing her nail herself. Kellye finishes up her last nail after that, and Ginger pulls her hand away, considering. “Oh, they’re beautiful, as always. Thank you, Kellye.” She turns to Francis. “We can’t paint our nails when we know we’ll have incoming patients, because putting on and taking off so many gloves in quick succession strips the polish off them. So we have to take advantage when it looks like there’ll be a lull.”
“Maybe it’s silly,” Leslie says. “I hope it doesn’t come across as vanity. It just reminds me of home, is all. You know, back when how my nails looked mattered.”
“It’s perfectly understandable,” Francis says.
“It’s a bit trivial,” Margaret says. Francis glances over at her. He’s noticed how, for someone usually so opinionated, she hasn’t been saying much of anything in this conversation tonight. Unlike Leslie and Margie, who both put down what they were reading as soon as the conversation started up, she’s still got her book open, as though to indicate that she’s not fully involved in the conversation. Francis is, of course, aware of the ongoing tensions between Margaret and her nurses. He’s consoled more than one of the nurses about it, although Margret herself has yet to speak directly with him about it.
“Oh, come on, major,” Margie says. “We just want to feel pretty, sometimes, is all.”
“Well, I’d personally rather not have to worry about whether I’m going to ruin my nail polish when I’m assisting in saving a life,” Margaret replies.
Francis realizes that Margaret is rarely seen out of uniform, certainly not when compared to the other nurses. He wonders if her emphasis on practicality is merely a standard she feels she has to hold herself to as the only female officer in the camp, or if it’s a welcome excuse for her to eschew the more traditional trappings of femininity.
Of course he doesn’t ask, though. Instead, he seeks to ease the tensions in the room without picking a side. “Well, I’m not in the business of saving lives myself. I leave that up to God, and to all of you. So, Kellye, if you’ll do the honors before I change my mind.” He still can’t believe he’s really going along with this, even though he knows it’s just a gag, even though he knows they’ll scrub it right off afterwards. Kellye can’t seem to really believe it, either. She looks at him for just a second more before Ginger elbows her. At that, Kellye follows Ginger’s lead, and they both begin looking around the tent for the bottle of gold polish.
“I think you last had it with your cuticle scissors, wherever those are,” Ginger tells Kellye, and Francis is reminded of Hawkeye and Trapper back in the swamp. Kellye and Ginger seem to have a similar synchronicity, and it’s a bittersweet happiness that he feels realizing so. But soon enough, the gold polish is tracked down, and he holds out his hand. Kellye takes it hesitantly. He’s almost startled by the touch; it’s certainly the first time since he’s been over here that someone’s held his hand. Kellye uncaps the bottle and begins making a gold cross on his right thumb nail.
While Kellye’s in between nails, Ginger climbs over from her cot onto Kellye’s, sitting right next to her so she can lean over and watch Kellye’s progress. “Oh, stop,” Kellye says. “You’re going to mess up my concentration.”
“No, you’re doing great,” Ginger tells her. “Can you do other designs on his other nails?”
“Like what?” Kellye asks.
“I don’t know. How about stars or the moon or something?” Gingers suggests.
“I don’t know if that matches the crosses,” Kellye says.
“Well, God did create both the heavens and the earth,” Francis tells her, “so really any design you choose to do would sort of fall under His prevue.”
Kellye giggles. “Alright,” she says. “I don’t usually go so fancy, but I’ll try.”
Despite the jokes about Catholicism, in some ways he can almost imagine that they’re all friends back in college or something, spending any typical Friday night as they normally would, consulting each other on nail polish designs, unconcerned about anything else. He lets himself pretend just a little; not enough to forget himself and do anything unbefitting to a chaplain (if painting his nails weren’t un-priest-like enough). Just enough to sink into the comfort of it, just slightly. He thinks once again about Catherine, about how, when they stayed up late, they’d whisper secrets to each other that were either too trivial or too big for confession. Now he can’t remember the last time he told someone a secret. And he certainly won’t be sharing any with these women tonight. But letting them paint his nails somehow feels close enough.
Margaret continues to read, but she sneaks a glance over at them every now and then. Nobody else is reading, but no one is talking, either. It’s funny; the silence feels almost reverent. Margie and Leslie, though they’re still seated on their own cots, are craning their necks to get a better look at what designs Kellye is making. After her little comment about Ginger not helping her concentration, the general hush is probably due simply to everyone not wanting to distract her. But it feels, to Francis, almost like some sort of ritual he never really knew existed, like an initiation into something, he’s not quite sure what. It’s funny to be on the receiving end, instead of the administering end, of something like this; to feel himself brought into the flock, instead of to be the one to usher others in. He likes it.
It takes longer than he expected. When Kellye finishes up the last nail, she warns him, “Don’t touch anything for a while, now, or you’ll mess it up.” He nods, and brings his hands up to his face, examining her work. Delicate little crosses, moons, and stars adorn each of his nails. They’re really quite well-done.
He wants to compliment her, but he has a better idea. He leans over to where Margaret’s sitting, still half-absorbed in her book, and holds out a hand. “What do you think, Margaret?” He gives her a significant look, hoping she’ll understand his question for what it is; an invitation to join them without having partake in the nail-painting herself.
She gives his nails a once-over, with an expression almost like she’s inspecting someone’s uniform to see if it’s up to regulation. But then her expression softens, just a little, and she tells Keylle, “They really are quite beautiful.”
“Thank you, major,” Kellye says. Ginger wraps one arm around Kellye and gives her a little squeeze.
Francis adds, “They’re lovely. Thank you, Kellye.” She gives him a sweet smile.
“What do you do to remind yourself of home?” Ginger asks him. “I assume painting your nails isn’t the usual.” The question surprises him; he’s used to asking things like that, not answering. He thinks, for a minute. There’s a lot about home that he misses. He misses his friends, and his sister, and his congregants. He misses good food, and coaching kids in boxing, and stained glass, and the organ playing in the church every Sunday.
“Well, I play music,” Francis says. That and boxing are the only two things that feel the same here as they did back in the states. And even with the boxing, he doesn’t have anyone to practice with, just his punching bag. But with music – the chords are the same, no matter what piano in the world he plays them on. Well, maybe they sound a little dingier on the run-down one they’ve got in the officer’s club than they do on his piano back home. But that doesn’t seem to dampen the dancing spirit of anyone at the 4077.
He’s found himself playing much more often without sheet music here than he did back home. He’ll get an unexpected song request from someone and try to recreate the tune from memory, thinking back to when he last heard it in the states on some radio station or record player. Sometimes, if he doesn’t know the tune as well, they’ll sing it to him, helping him pick up the melody. Back home, he never played for his parishioners. They had an organist at the church, so he’d only play piano by himself or, occasionally, for small groups of friends. Here, he plays for other people all the time.
Mulcahy does love practicing alone, in the rare moments when there’s no wounded and no party going on. Running scales, for him, feels almost like praying the rosary; there are few things that effectively calm him down more. And the all-consuming concentration that really nailing a new tune requires can be nice when he needs a break from thinking about the war and the wounded, just for a while. But the longer he’s been over here, the more comfortable he’s gotten playing for others. It can be lonely to play while others dance, but there’s a great joy in it, too. Here, where most of the people he serves don’t take communion, he can offer a song in place of a sacrament. It feels familiar, akin to other ministerial work of his, in that it puts him right in the center and outside of other people’s joy, all at once.
Again, he doesn’t share any of these thoughts with the nurses, though. He just smiles and says, “Music is one of my favorites of His creations.”
“You know, Kellye’s a bit of a musician herself,” Ginger tells Francis.
“Oh, really?” he says. He turns to Kellye, telling her, “You should take a turn at the piano one of these days.”
She blushes. “Oh, I don’t play piano. I play guitar.”
“She’s really very good,” Ginger tells Francis.
“Oh, stop,” Kellye says.
“Would you play something for me?” Francis asks her. “Only if you want to, of course. But I’d love to hear you play.”
Kellye glances at Ginger, considering. “Only if you’ll sing,” she says finally.
“Oh, I couldn’t,” Ginger says.
“She’s got a lovely singing voice,” Kellye tells Francis.
“Well, fine,” Ginger says, smiling a little. She turns to Margaret, then, and adds, “Only if the major won’t mind us making a racket this late.”
Margaret, who’s gone back to reading her book, waves her hand, saying, “Oh, go ahead, I don’t mind.”
Margie, seeming to know exactly where Kellye keeps her guitar, turns around and reaches behind her cot, bringing it up carefully, then handing it over to Kellye. Kellye takes it, plucking each string softly and fiddling around with the tuning pegs. As she does so, she turns to Ginger. “Alright, what do you want to sing?”
“What do you want to hear?” Ginger asks Francis.
“Oh, I don’t want to impose. Whatever you two want to sing,” he says.
“We’ve got a large repertoire,” Kellye tells him, seemingly already gaining confidence, even just from having her guitar in her hands. “You’ll be doing us a favor by helping us pick one.”
Francis thinks. At first, he considers picking some pop song of the day, but then he has another idea. “Do you know ‘I’ll Fly Away’?” he asks. He knows that song is really more within the purview of the Protestants, but he’s always loved it, and he knows the chords are easy enough.
Ginger nods. Kellye, though, says, “I’m not sure I do, actually. Not off the top of my head.”
“It’s easy,” Ginger says. “Father Mulcahy can help you with the chords, right?”
He nods. “You can do it in G, and then you only need to go to D7 and C.” He tells her the pattern, and she nods.
“Okay, let’s try it,” she says. She starts strumming. At first, she merely hits each chord and lets them ring out, not employing any kind of fancier strumming pattern. She looks to Francis for her queue on when to change chords, and he calls them out to her. At first, Ginger just sits there quietly, letting Kellye get the hang of the song. Once she comes back around to the top, though, Ginger begins to sing.
She really does have a beautiful voice. Francis is almost so distracted that he doesn’t remember to help Kellye with the chord changes. As the song continues, Ginger gets more confident, and Kellye begins finger picking out a very lovely pattern; Francis wonders if she was classically trained. Occasionally, she’ll still look to him for the chords, but she really does pick it up very quickly. Leslie and Margie are looking on sweetly, and even Margaret puts her book down to listen.
After Ginger does two verses, she stumbles, saying, “Oh, shoot, I don’t know if I remember any more.”
To everyone’s surprise, Margret picks up singing. Her voice is unremarkable, and she seems to know it, but she keeps on singing stubbornly in a way that seems to fit her. After a moment of surprise, Ginger seems to recover herself, joining in with Margaret so that they finish the song together.
“That was lovely,” Francis says. He’s surprised he didn’t know before now that Ginger could sing and Kellye could play guitar; it’s pretty clear that they often do so together. He almost suggests they perform some Sunday, or brings up the idea of a talent show, but then he thinks better of it. Margie and Leslie are already throwing out other song suggestions; they seem familiar with Ginger and Kellye’s repertoire. Francis realizes that maybe there’s some comfort for all of them in reserving the ritual for their moments alone together in this tent, in preserving the music as not so much a performance but more of a communal act. So instead, he says nothing as they start up another song. He listens.
The next morning, he finds himself alone at a table with Margaret again. He suspects Hawkeye, Trapper, and the rest of the men who spent the night in the swamp might still be sleeping off hangovers. She puts down her tray and sits across from him, smiling. “Feeling more well rested?” she asks.
“Yes, thank you,” Francis says.
She glances down at his nails. After the singing had finished up, Ginger had helped him scrub all the nail polish off them. He’d been reluctant to see the art go. “No worse for the wear, I see,” Margaret says now.
“Well rested and good as new,” Francis replies, wiggling his fingers at her a little. She smiles.
“You didn’t have to indulge them as much as you did last night,” she tells him.
“Yes, well, there’s a reason Martin Luther ended up splitting with us over the issue of indulgences,” Francis jokes.
“If you’ll pardon my saying so, I don’t think I’ve seen you as relaxed as you were last night in quite a while. Maybe even ever.”
“Yes, well,” Francis jokes, “with all the mischief that everyone gets up to at the 4077, it’s not usually good for me to get too relaxed.”
“Doesn’t it ever bother you?” Margaret asks.
“Doesn’t what ever bother me?”
“All the… the mischief, as you call it. Things here hardly seem up to anyone’s standards of morality, let alone a priest’s.”
“I don’t think it’s my job to define standards of morality for others,” Francis says. He pauses, then asks, gently, “Do you?”
Margaret sighs. He knows she can tell that what he’s really asking is not what she thinks his job is, but what she thinks hers is. “You think I’m too hard on them,” she says.
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you do think it.”
“I’ve noticed some continued tensions between yourself and your staff over what standards they should be held to and when. I don’t think the blame rests entirely on any one person’s shoulders.”
“It was nice,” Margaret says. “Singing with them last night. Hearing them play. I know Ginger and Kellye enjoy it, but they don’t usually put on a show like that around me.”
“Well, that’s one of the advantages of being a priest,” Francis says. “People do like to make exceptions for you. That’s why I got into the business, you know. You wouldn’t believe the sorts of discounts you can get on incense and bulk candles.”
Margaret gives him a little courtesy laugh, at that, but then she gives him another thoughtful look before saying, “Growing up, you know, with my father… when I was really little, I remember when my father would come home, I’d sometimes have to remind him to ‘turn off his work face.’ As I got older, I stopped saying it to him, not because he didn’t still need to hear it, but because he would no longer listen. And now, you know, that I’m in this job myself—well, I wonder, if I had a daughter, how often she’d tell me something like that. How often she’d have to remind me to ‘turn off my work face.’”
She pauses, then continues, “I won’t presume to understand all of what being a priest is like—I know it goes beyond a mere job—but I do know how it is to have to hold yourself back, to keep up boundaries between yourself and the people who are, in some ways, as close as you’ve got to family. I know there’s a price to it, sometimes. And you’re doing admirable work, and I wouldn’t tell you to do your job any other way, only—I hope the price hasn’t been too high, for you.”
Francis doesn’t reply right away. Margaret is opening up the opportunity here for him to have a more honest conversation with her than he’s had with anyone in a while. Not that he goes around lying to anyone, it’s just—usually when people are sharing their feelings, it’s someone else confiding in him, and not the other way around. That’s his role at camp, after all. But even people like Henry, who could conceivably initiate conversations with Francis about how his job here at camp is going, doesn’t tend to do so. Most of the people here don’t seem to have turned to religion in times of crisis before coming to Korea, and even Frank seems to regard religion as more of an obligation than any sort of ongoing conversation. So they all seem somewhat bemused by what Francis’ role should be here, to leave it up to Francis to do as he sees fit. Often enough, that seems to work just fine.
But it means most of his conversations about what, exactly, his role is at the 4077 have been with people who don’t know the ins and outs of the camp; with bishops and priests stationed in other areas, with his sister back home. Here’s Margaret, though, asking him frankly about what his job here means to him. If that were the extent of her question, maybe he’d brush it off more, maintain professional boundaries. But he can hear, underneath it, another question, a question about her own role here in the camp.
“It is hard at times, Margaret,” Francis tells her. “It can be lonely. But I know it’s not forever. One thing that helps me is trying to do as much good work as I can while I’m here, in this time that I’ve been given. I know you can understand that.”
Margaret nods. “I do,” she says. “But I wonder, just—again, if you don’t mind my asking… do you ever have doubts?”
“Doubts about what?” Francis asks.
“About anything. About everything. About all this, the, the—the war, and the fighting, and what you’re meant to do in the face of all that. About—about God.”
“I do,” Francis says. She looks surprised to hear him admit it so quickly, but Francis thinks he catches a hint of relief in her face as well. “I often have doubts. I’m a priest, not a saint. But I don’t necessarily see my doubts as a weakness. I think an unexamined faith is a weak one. An unexamined faith in anything, that is. Not just in God.”
Margaret nods again. She takes a minute before telling him, “I think I know what you mean, but I—I’ve been afraid, for a long while now, to let myself examine some of the beliefs in my own life. The way I structure my understandings, or, or—well, I don’t really know how to say it. Just. There’s this foundation on which I’ve built my life, and I used to think it was stable, only now I’m afraid that if I look at it too closely, cracks are going to start showing through. And I don’t know, with those cracks, if it will be able to keep supporting everything I’ve built.”
Now it’s Francis’ turn to pause before answering. He wonders to what, exactly, she’s referring—is she questioning just her faithful adherence to the military, or is there something more? “Some things weren’t meant to last our whole lives,” Francis says finally. “Growth is always hard. I’ve helped many parishioners, back home, go through painful periods of transformation. But usually, if they’re really willing to put real work into their self-examination, they come out stronger on the other side.”
“Usually,” Margaret says. “What about the ones that don’t?”
“I like to think that chapter of their life just still isn’t closed, yet. That there’s still more work to be done. I think we can rewrite our story as many times as we need to. It’s never over until we put down the pen.”
“I’m just—I’m not even sure what kind of story I’m in, anymore,” Margaret says. “I don’t know what kind of story I’m trying to tell.” She pauses. “Do you ever—did you ever have somebody leave the church?”
“I did,” Francis says.
“But did you think it was the right decision, for them to go? I mean you must—there must be some decisions that you can make that are bad. That are just wrong.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Francis says. “There are crises of faith that I’ve seen people struggle through that I know weren’t the devil speaking. I’m always sad to see a parishioner leave, but there are times—it may be sacrilegious for me to say so, but there are times when I couldn’t begrudge them the decision. When it was hard, even for me, to see any other way forward for them but out. And I don’t—the God I believe in wouldn’t cause those people to leave the church, in my eyes, only to send them to Hell when they died.”
He knows that’s not what his bishop would have him say, but it’s the truth of how he feels, and he thinks it might just be what Margaret needs to hear. Indeed, she almost looks as though she might cry. What he doesn’t tell her is that his own doubts have gone so far as for him to consider leaving the church. It’s a conversation that’s ongoing, and he has the feeling he’ll have to sit with his own discomfort for a while yet before he reaches an answer he feels sure of.
“You do good work, Margaret,” he tells her when she doesn’t say anything for a minute. “You’ve saved a lot of lives. But there are other places, other ways, that I know you could help just as much. And if you end up somewhere you never expected, well—that still won’t negate the fact of what you did here. It’s not something you have to decide right now. I think maybe the best thing you can do is give yourself time to figure these things out.”
“It’s just hard,” Margaret says. “It’s hard to give myself space to figure these things out without undermining my authority here in camp.”
“But not impossible,” Francis says. He pauses. “I also—I don’t often share my own doubts with people in camp. My relationship with everyone here, by the very nature of my job, has to be very different from their relationships with each other. But that doesn’t make them inauthentic. The love I feel for everyone here, that’s a very real thing. And it’s a love that I know is returned. And I believe you could find a way to some kind of love, too, with your nurses, and the doctors, if you gave yourself the chance. I know, in fact, that they already care for you very much, and you for them, even if you all sometimes have trouble showing it.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Margaret says.
“I do,” Francis says. “Trust me. I’m a priest. At the end of the day, I suppose I can only really tell you what I know to be true for myself. But what I know for myself is that, even though my relationships with everyone in camp may be different than the kinds of relationships they have with each other, they’re no less meaningful. Think about last night, for example. There’s still room in them, after all, for singing.”
Margaret smiles. “That’s true,” she says. “I think I forget that, sometimes. That there’s still room for singing.”
Francis smiles. “Tell you what,” he says. “I’ll promise to try and remind you of that, if it ever looks like you need it. As long as you promise to do the same for me.” He knows he hasn’t solved everything here today, either for Margaret or himself, but he gets the feeling that this is more honest than either of them has been with another person in quite a while. And he has to hope that this honesty is the first step toward something good for both of them. That’s one thing he’s always had an unwavering faith in, that there is always something better that people might find their way to, that they can help each other toward, together.
“I think,” Margaret says, “That I could do that. I think that’d be nice.”
“I think,” Francis agrees, “that that would be very nice indeed.”