"Burning" by  Mark Villegas  |  ISSUE TWO

"Burning" by Mark VillegasISSUE TWO

Captain O'Reilly
and the Professor

by Barbara Mujica

“The burns only covered her right arm and side. It could have been worse. Normally we would perform an escharotomy, but under the circumstances…”

“What’s an escharotomy?”

“It’s a surgical procedure you have to do when both the epidermis and the dermis are destroyed. You have to cut through the damaged skin down to the subcutaneous fat and into the healthy area. She was so tiny that the doctor didn’t want to do it, but there was no other way to save the tissue. I prepared the dressings for the wound.”

“What about the mother?”

“Dead. The explosion had blown both of them about ten yards, maybe more, but somehow the woman had managed to hold onto her baby and even shield the little body with her own. The guys said the mother was still alive when they pulled her out of the rubble, but by the time they got her to us, she was gone. She was lying there on a sheet, her head cocked in an awkward position, like a chicken with a broken neck. Half her body was incinerated—a mass of gory, buff- and wine-colored wounds that reminded me of a smashed plum. The baby was lying next to her, screaming. I picked the little thing up as gently as I could and held her a moment, but there was no time for sentiment. I handed her over to the docs. They worked like demons to keep blood flowing into the damaged area. Professor Thurston should have been there, the son-of-a-bitch.”

I smiled. “Yes, he should have been there,” I said. “What happened to the little girl?”

“The woman had no identification on her, but eventually an uncle came looking for a missing niece and claimed the body. He took the child. He was sobbing. This was the second niece he had lost to Al-Qaida grenades and the second child he was going to have to raise on his own. I saw one of the aides hand him a few dinars. ‘The U.S. government will send you a check,’ he whispered through an interpreter, ‘but who knows how long that will take.’ The man pushed the money away. ‘Please,’ said the soldier. ‘To buy medicine for the little girl.’ He turned away to hide his tears from the man and also from me. ‘You’re not supposed to do that, Private Hansen,’ I whispered. ‘I don’t give a shit,’ he answered, and we left it at that.”

During the years I had been renting rooms to veterans to supplement my income as a bank teller, I had never had a boarder like Captain O’Reilly. As slight as a feather and as black as a raven in an oil slick, she exuded strength—not physical strength, although she was wiry and tough, but inner strength. I liked her steady gaze and get-to-work-or-get-out-of-my-way attitude. She was a woman who meant business.

“Guess I wasn’t what you expected,” she said when she first stepped into my living room. Her application read: Captain C.W. O’Reilly, U.S. Army. “You were probably expecting a tall, broad-shouldered, blond guy, and here I’m a petite black woman. I’ll be a good tenant, though. I pay my bills on time.”

“That’s fine, Captain O’Reilly. I need your full name for my records.”

“Candace Winifred O’Reilly. My great-great-grandfather was probably a slave on some Irishman’s plantation.” She said it matter-of-factly, without bitterness. “You can call me Candace,” she said, “but please, not Candy.”

I had started renting out rooms when my son left for Iraq, but I’d never had a woman boarder. I was delighted. I thought she might be a companion for me. Although most of the time Candace was in class or in her room studying, occasionally, late at night, she’d come to the kitchen, and we’d share a pot of tea. She’d tell me stories, like the one about the little girl with the burns, or she’d describe her latest run-in with Professor Thurston.

“I went into the Army right out of high school,” she explained, “and got shipped off to Iraq as a combat medic—a 68W, or Whisky. The Whiskies were the guys who provided emergency medical care for wounded soldiers, but sometimes they’d bring in an Iraqi civilian too. The docs all said I was a demon worker and had the brains to be a doctor myself. After a couple of years, I decided to go back to school and get a B.A. The Army was willing to help. I completed the degree in three years, became a second lieutenant, and applied to medical school.”

Now she was a captain and a second-year medical student at the local university. Her courses in molecular and cellular biology, general chemistry, and neurobiology were going fine, she assured me. The thorn in her side was a required seminar she called a “touchy-feely shit course”: The Physician and Society, taught by Dr. Donald Thurston, a renowned pacifist.

He began his first lecture with Latin words he knew no one would understand: Victus quoque rationem ad aegrotantium salutem pro facultate, judicioque meo adhibebo, noxamvero et maleficium propulsabo. “He stared at me when he said them,” Candace chuckled. “And then, as though he were Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount, he thundered, ‘These words are part of the Hippocratic Oath. Do no harm.’ I looked away. I knew he was trying to pick a fight with me. There were fifteen people in the room, but he was glaring right at me.”

“Well, you have to get through the course,” I told her, “so I guess you’ll have to grin and bear it.”

“And then he went on, ‘The word ahimsa, to do no harm, is the core of pacifistic Buddhism and Hinduism. So you see, a physician must be a pacifist. One cannot be both a soldier and a doctor. The concepts are diametrically opposed.’”

“‘With all due respect, sir,’ I said, ‘soldiers do not declare war; governments do. And when a nation sends its military men and women into battle, some will be wounded. Doctors must attend to them.’”

“‘Don’t call me sir,’ he snapped. ‘This isn’t an Army base!’ The mole on his nose was trembling like a beetle in the rain. He turned away from me and started talking about Aung San Suu Kyi, the Buddhist nonviolent, pro-democracy activist in Myanmar.”

I hardly saw Candace for the next couple of days. She got home late from the library or the lab. She was studying hard, trying to learn all she could. She was anxious to validate the Army’s faith in her and also to avoid irritating Thurston.  

“You know, it wasn’t all burns and bullet wounds,” she told me one evening while we were sipping wine. “Sometimes it’s some tiny little thing you can do for a fellow soldier that makes your life worthwhile.”

She closed her eyes, remembering.

“We were on this remote base with a makeshift medical facility—just an unenclosed space in the corner of the building. Iraq is hard on women. The sand is so fine-grained and powdery, it gets into all the wrong places. One of the sergeants had an infection, and she’d gone to see the doctor, who told her he had more urgent things to attend to. She insisted, so he had her lie down on a table, naked below the waist, knees splayed. Then he hiked up to her neck the sheet she had draped over herself. Soldiers were coming in and out. Most were sensitive enough to look away, but I could tell from this woman’s face that she was mortified.”

“Did you say something?”

“I just walked over and lowered the sheet, arranging it over her knees. The doctor could still perform his examination but without exposing her to the entire company. If you could have seen the look of relief and gratitude in that sister’s eyes!”

I sighed and shook my head, then poured us both another glass of wine.

“How’s it going with Thurston?” I asked cautiously.

“That guy’s got a head full of rotting fish. The worst thing anyone could wish on him would be to be himself. You know what he said to me today? He said, ‘What’d you do when they brought in an Iraqi civilian? Feed him cyanide pills?’ I didn’t answer him. I just walked away. Last week he asked me how many babies I’d killed over there. He’s obsessed with dead babies. He never asks how many children’s lives I’ve saved! Then he asked me if I got a recommendation to medical school by sleeping with my commanding officer. I thought men could be insensitive in the Army, but I’ve never met anyone as insensitive as this civilian pacifist.”

“You ought to complain to someone. There must be some kind of a grievance office on campus.”

“I can handle it alone. The last thing I need is for the Army to hear that I got into a fight with my professor.”

But the situation kept getting worse. Thurston had assigned an essay on the physician’s social responsibility to protect the public from threats of nuclear proliferation, climate change, environmental toxins, or violence caused by economic inequity. Candace wrote about emergency care for victims of gun violence in urban hospitals.

“That wasn’t the topic!” he barked at her in front of the whole class.

“Savagery in the streets is often due to poverty and despair, sir. Young men can’t get jobs, so they turn away from society and engage in destructive—and self-destructive—behavior.”

“Or they go into the Army where they can kill with impunity and win medals for it. And don’t call me sir!”

Candace bit her lip and stared straight ahead at the screen of her laptop.

A few weeks went by without her mentioning Thurston. I served dinner to the boarders every night at 7:00, but Candace rarely joined us, preferring to grab a sandwich after her last lab and head directly for the library. When she returned after midnight, I was usually in bed. After a while, it occurred to me that she might be avoiding me. Maybe I was asking too many questions, I thought. Maybe she didn’t want to talk about the Army, about classes, about Thurston.

But one Saturday evening, when the other boarders were out on dates or drinking at some bar with their buddies, she suggested we go out to a movie. We checked the newspapers but couldn’t find a film that interested us, so we finally decided to stay home and watch The Hurt Locker on television.

I watched the roadside bombs go off, producing mile-high explosions, and grimaced.

“It wasn’t like that at all,” she grumbled when it was over.

“You mean the guys who get an adrenaline high dismantling bombs?”

“In my experience, all the bomb squad wants to do is deactivate the thing and get the hell out of there. They don’t get a big thrill out of risking their lives every day pulling apart explosives.” She paused and thought about it a minute. “When they’re injured, you know what the first thing they ask is?”

“Whether you notified their mothers?”

She burst out laughing. “No! They ask whether they’ve still got their balls! They don’t care whether they’ve lost a leg or an eye, as long as their manhood is intact.”

“I can understand that,” I said, thinking about my own son and thanking God he had come home from Iraq uninjured.

“You know,” she said, changing the subject, “once a young girl came to me, a military policewoman. She’d gotten pregnant by one of the guys and miscarried the baby. Her uniform pants were soaked with blood, and she didn’t know what to do. She was terrified her commanding officer would find out.”

“You had to report it, didn’t you?”

“What for? It was too late to save the baby. I performed a D&C, bandaged her up and put her to bed. I told the lieutenant in charge that she had a shrapnel wound, a superficial one that was expected to heal quickly, but that she should stay in the infirmary for a couple of days. I kept an eye on her until she was able to shoulder a rifle. No one ever found out about it.”  

“If you had it to do over again, would you join?”

“Of course. A handful of pigs and jerks wear the uniform, but most of the guys are terrific. I love the Army! I was just a poor kid from a carcass of a neighborhood in Chicago. I lived on a street that smelled of shit and cheap marijuana. The Army gave me confidence and taught me skills. My commanders were supportive, encouraging. It’s thanks to them that I’m in medical school. How else could someone like me get to where I am now?” Suddenly her voice went quivery. “I thought that someday I’d go back and open a clinic in my old community. God knows those folks need one. But now it looks like I might not get through.”  

“What do you mean?”

“Professor Thurston made it pretty clear that he wasn’t going to let me pass. He stood in front of the whole class and spat out syllables as though they were bullets. He said he had no intention of educating murderers and agents of destruction so that they could go back and wreak more havoc. ‘We wouldn’t need Army medics,’ he hissed, ‘if it weren’t for these fucking wars!’ ‘No one hates war more than a soldier who’s been through one, sir!’ I hissed back. ‘But as long as we have them, we need military doctors, and I intend to become one!’ Some of the other students snickered and some just looked away.”

“Candace!” I felt as though I had a wad of cobwebs in my throat. “You have to go see the dean. You’ve worked so hard…you can’t let this man—”

“He doesn’t seem to realize that scores of Iraqi civilians came to us begging for help. Al-Qaida was kidnapping their children to use as human shields and raping little girls in order to intimidate their fathers into submission. War wreaks havoc, there’s no denying it, but my job wasn’t to kill. It was to save as many people as I could.”

“Listen, Candace, if Dr. Thurston wants to be a pacifist, that’s his business. He has a constitutional right to his opinions. But he has no right to impose those opinions on his students, and he certainly has no right to humiliate you in public…or in private, for that matter!”

“I just don’t want… problems.” Suddenly tears like slivers of glass flooded her cheeks.  

How can this be? I thought. How has this monster brought a strong, beautiful, principled young woman to tears? I never thought I’d see Candace O’Reilly cry, but this brutish physician, with absolutely no understanding of the true meaning of ahimsa, had crushed her.  

Christmas was approaching and, with it, final exams. The sun, a giant pearl, hung low in a stone-white sky. The holly bush outside my front window flaunted its festive berries. Most of my boarders planned to fly home to visit their families. Some were leaving for good to take jobs in distant cities after the first of the year. I was baking tarts and primping the house in preparation for the holidays. During it all, Candace studied. She left early in the morning for the library, book-laden briefcase in hand, and returned after midnight, when the moon shone opalescent and pallorous.

One evening, when I returned home from the bank, I noticed that Candace’s door was ajar. It was unusual for her to be back so early. I peeked in and found her packing, folding her clothes meticulously—jeans, shirts, uniforms, even bras and panties—and placing each item into the suitcase.   

I rarely entered the boarders’ rooms unless repairs were necessary, and I hadn’t seen Candace’s since she’d moved in. Everything was as pristine as the day I had first handed her the key. The bedspread emitted a slightly fruity smell. She must have washed it in citrus-scented laundry detergent. A bouquet of dried flowers stood on the night table alongside a framed photo of Candace with two other women. Beams of moonlight fell through the window from a darkening sky.   

“What’s going on, Candace?”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t give you notice, Mrs. Montez,” she said, “but I have to leave.” Her air was cool, unruffled.

My back stiffened. I felt like a guard dog poised to attack an intruder. “Thurston!” I growled.

“No,” she said, smiling. “The Army. They’re sending me to Afghanistan.”

“A week before finals?”

“That’s how it is, Mrs. M. You have to go wherever they send you.”

“And whenever?”

“Yes, whenever. I have a couple of days to fly out to Chicago to say good-bye to my mom and grandmother. Then I leave for San Antonio for additional training and from there to Afghanistan. I’ll drop you an email if I can.”

“But this is crazy! You’re almost done with the semester!”

“It’s just as well. I can begin my second year again when I come back, maybe somewhere else. At any rate, I won’t be taking any more courses with Professor Thurston.”

She packed the photo, then closed her suitcase and went to the door. “Cory said he’d drive me to the airport,” she said. Cory Frater had been one of my first boarders, and he was still with me. “Listen, Mrs. M., I know this is sudden. I already paid for December, but I want to pay for January too. You shouldn’t lose a month of income.”

“No need, Candace. Just stay safe.”

She hugged me and left.

* * *

Crocuses were blooming. The winter sky shimmered like ribbons of turquoise crepe. It was Saturday and the house was quiet. Most of the vets were attending to weekend errands, working, or studying. Candace had written once from Kabul, saying she would soon be shipping off to somewhere remote. She was happy, she said. She was learning a lot and working side-by-side with doctors, doing what she had been trained to do.

She didn’t mention Thurston. Maybe she had put the whole business behind her, but it still bothered me. What could be wrong with the man? How could he allow his personal convictions to interfere with his duties as an educator? Why was he determined to deter a young woman from pursuing her dream? I made up my mind to bring his behavior to the attention of someone in authority, to put this arrogant little professor in his place.  

I looked up Thurston on the university website and got the usual faculty précis—a list of degrees, honors, publications, and teaching assignments.

I looked over his student evaluations on “Rate My Professor” but didn’t see anything alarming. He was “passionate,” wrote one student. He was “a little weird,” wrote another, “but committed to Hippocratic principles.” “A pacifist,” wrote a third, “but that’s a good thing.”

I spent weeks perusing articles on the Internet but found little of consequence about Thurston. The man kept a low profile.  

One day a customer came into the bank to deposit a check. I noticed she had a university address and asked her if she knew anyone at the medical school.

“Everyone,” she said. “I’ve been a program administrator over there for forty years!”

“Do you know a professor named Donald Thurston?” I asked cautiously. I wasn’t going to tell her Candace’s story, but I thought she might tell me something about what made Thurston tick. Then I could figure out what dean to go to.

Her smile faded abruptly.  

“He’s a sad man,” she said softly, glancing around to see if anyone was listening. “He’s been through a lot.”

“What do you mean?”

“He lost a son in Iraq during the early months of the war. A lovely boy, the apple of his father’s eye. He died trying to pull a baby out of a burning building. It was so horrible for Don and his wife… She died a few weeks later of a heart attack. Don kept on teaching but he was changed. He became a pacifist, an anti-military fanatic. I hate war too, but he’s obsessed. He’s always proselytizing, even in class. Usually students ignore it. They just want to get out, get a job, and pay off their student loans. Most of the time Don comes across as pretty rational, except when the subject turns to war. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. I guess I shouldn’t be.”

I shrugged.

“Why do you want to know?”

“Oh, nothing really. I’d heard he was, well, passionate…and deeply committed to Hippocratic principles. I was just curious about him.”

She nodded and endorsed her check.

Writer's Bio:

Barbara Mujica is a novelist, essayist and short story writer. Her novel Frida was an international bestseller published in 17 languages. Sister Teresa, which will appear this year in Spanish as Hermana Teresa, was adapted for the stage at the Actor's Studio, in Los Angeles. The play premiered at the end of 2013. Mujica's latest novel, I Am Venus, was a winner of the Maryland Writers' Association National Fiction Competition. Mujica is the mother of a Marine and until July 2017, the faculty adviser of the Student Veterans Association at Georgetown University, where she is a professor of Spanish Literature. Email her at mujica [at] georgetown [dot] edu.