My name is Mary Denise Bartholomew of the Sisters of Charity and Mercy. This fiftieth anniversary, men approach me in the Peach Orchard, on Little Round Top, some weeping but all as bent as I am, our backs curved like a colonel’s sword.
Because they fell here, because they went on to Cold Harbor, Shenandoah, the Wilderness, they press ribbons and medals into my hand. (They falter at the thought of attaching them.) Do they remember me, or do I serve as a representative angel? I was nineteen
when our wagonload of nuns had to stop again and again where Tanneytown Road entered Gettysburg. We pulled the dead to the side as gently as we could. We clutched our rosaries to our smocks, sobbing among the Hail Marys. We arrived wearing black shawls,
white smocks, and white habits, colors standing for all my thinking before I saw Gettysburg. I am an old woman living with my vows. We bandaged and sutured; we buried limbs. I had a fancy that no one else had ever breathed air that hot with fumes from wounds.
Operating tables and beds? We had pews. We knelt facing those men and boys and not the altar where endless waves of praying and raving broke. I turned my back on the tabernacle in doubt and sorrow. A hundred and sixty-five thousand soldiers [End Page 586]
came to Gettysburg, and no God was there but the God each side called down. Was thinking that a sin? If so I keep a secret sin. I have made peace. I refused Mother Superior when she ordered us back to the convent. Fasts and Kyrie, eleisons! These hands had work yet at Gettysburg.
We held the hands of the dying, so many sightless, concussion-deaf, deranged from pain. I wondered who they thought we were— mother, wife, lover? There was one young man I found myself returning to. Blue or butternut, his uniform had been cut away—a beautiful boy.
Every hour I swathed his head in fresh dressings. Then this I would not have thought possible: he raised himself up and embraced me. I know what I felt. I was a young girl. He left a blood spot on my smock, on my breast where the nipple was. He whispered, “Do you love me?”
He died unanswered by this bride of Christ. We nuns shaved one another’s heads to rid them of lice our wounded gave us. Medals and ribbons, such colors and insignias and mottoes— now that I am Mother Superior I am going to have them with me in the winding sheet. [End Page 587]
Thomas Reiter’s poems have appeared in Poetry, the Georgia Review, the Hudson Review, Shenandoah, and other journals. His most recent collection is Catchment, published by LSU Press in 2009.