My rose-coloured glasses

Excerpt from Refuge in the Trees, a Doctor’s Recollections of Treating Saysquacks During the Great War, by Dr. David Goodfellow

After much pulling of strings, I was able to obtain funding for a small asylum in the French countryside near the village of Bon Endroit. The hospital was designed for the care and study of saysquacks who had been invalided away from the front. It was understood that these were “hopeless cases” with no possibility for mending and returning even to light duty.

Lady Daphne Vira St. Germaine was our primary patron and benefactor. High Command gave permission for the endeavor with great reluctance, and only with the understanding that no military funding or resources would be provided. It was further understood that far from publicizing or recognizing our efforts, they were to be conducted with the utmost discretion. It was widely feared that if the general public knew that we were providing intensive care for injured saysquacks, there would be an outcry, accusations of “special treatment,” and (however unfairly) the implication that any care given to the saysquacks, was given at the expense of our (human) boys.

It didn’t help that High Command and the Foreign Office itself were divided over the issue, with many taking the ignorant and uncharitable view that nervous conditions were merely an excuse for cowardice, and that doctors were complicit in a conspiracy to abet shirking duty on a large scale. This was added to the prejudices that already existed about the saysquacks, essentially that they were beasts incapable of feeling physical pain, to speak nothing of emotion.

This faction loudly asserted that one would no more create a special hospital to assuage their emotional suffering than one would for a horse or a cow. For to do so, would be an implicit acknowledgement that the big footed men could indeed feel and suffer, just as we humans do. And from there, it would be a short path to recognizing them as sentient beings with inherent rights. As history as already shown with the obscene covert military program to turn saysquacks into sausages to be consumed by us (unknown to most of us), my efforts, should they prove successful, could scandalize High Command and certain politicians beyond redemption.

Humanizing the saysquacks, even if that was not the aim of my designs, could not only come with a high cost for the military, but it could change the way humans and saysquacks coexisted forever. As a medical doctor and soldier, the extent of my vision was the bureaucratic obstacles before me in getting the hospital built. I was blissfully unaware of the socio-political implications of what I was trying to achieve, or whom it might affect, beyond the saysquacks themselves. I understood I had both friends and enemies in the chain of command, but I completely failed to realize that far more was at stake than progressive methods for treating psychologically wounded saysquacks.

I was an irritant, ever reminding my superiors that the saysquacks volunteered for duty from a foreign nation. Their treatment — good or ill — could inspire or deter the next wave of recruits from America. The stories surrounding saysquack executions for cowardice were legion, and their morale was at an all-time low. Conditions in the trenches were poor enough that there were rumblings of mutiny in some units, as well as numerous desertions. Captain Branwell Browntrout had a signal role in advocating for proper training, coordination, and maintenance of saysquack combat units. Unfortunately, when the 2nd Olympian was decimated, not only did he die, but so did many of the officers he specially trained to effectively manage saysquacks. From that point forward, the situation deteriorated and High Command’s response was neglect and indifference.

Finally, after complaints from every quarter, High Command realized it had a crisis on its hands. In addition to making token efforts toward making conditions more livable in the trenches, and punishment less frequent and brutal, my efforts to create a specialist hospital were finally, grudgingly approved as part of an overall plan to rebuild the saysquack units into the loyal and feared combat brigades they once were.

Soon after orders were in hand, the project was underway. Lady St. Germaine had already purchased the property, and she personally recruited and organized a volunteer staff of nurses, cooks, groundskeepers, custodians, orderlies, and all the necessary equipage to create the bespoke asylum I had envisioned. The house was grand, constructed of stone milled in the 17th century. The grounds were sweeping, serene, and private. They were interwoven with cobblestone paths, and bordered by wrought-iron fences overgrown with ivy and other foliage. Nature was in the process of reclaiming the house as well, as it had been abandoned for some time, and in disrepair. But whilst the house and grounds were sorely in need of maintenance, my first impression of it was not as a gloomy, shambolic, rather gothic-looking wreck, but rather a glorious and peaceful haven, a place of respite and research. I pictured not only rehabilitating each saysquack who limped into these grounds, but I also imagined hosting conferences and seminars for my colleagues. Perhaps there would even be a re-planted and self-sustaining vineyard completely under the care of newly-cultured, sane saysquacks who could not only return to society stronger than ever, but with an intellect improved enough to make intelligent recommendations on specific vintages.

These were the “rose-colored glasses” I wore as a young doctor brimming with as much ambition and enthusiasm as compassion.

The experiment did not survive long enough for conferences and seminars, nor did my work with the saysquacks ever garner enough professional respect to attract enough attendees to justify holding one. We did, however, restore the grounds, the house — and yes, even the vineyard. Putting everything tidy and back in order could not have been accomplished without the help of our first batch of invalids, who secured their own rehabilitation as an unintended consequence of helping rebuild the hospital which would be dedicated to their care.

When all was put to right, we had ten private rooms and five double rooms for convalescing saysquacks, for a total capacity of twenty patients. And of course all the staff were quartered on site as well, either in the house itself or in one of several small, stone cottages on the grounds. There was a respectable garden, a dairy, a small stable, a few well-meaning but manic Labrador retrievers, and a small fountain in the front yard, along with assorted chipped and crumbling statuary. While we did have electricity, it was only intermittent. We did, however have running water.

Whilst everything we were to do was planned well in advance, much of the good we did at the chateau occurred by way of happenstance, and we discovered new facets to the saysquack emotional life that took us quite unawares at first. It was a tribute to my staff, that they remained open to learning from the new, daily interactions they had with our charges, as opposed to clinging to a set of protocols for caring for a species about which we knew little. For the most part, any meager protocols we had, were those that I developed as a sort of rough guide. I admit that it was at times, bitter medicine to take my assumptions about the saysquacks needs and the way their minds work, and toss them in the rubbish — with new knowledge and methods at times even contradicting my own professional papers I had just finished writing on these subjects.

There, against the wishes of the staff, I trained and employed a rather clever saysquack orderly. Gradually, I came to trust him as he was adept at establishing rapport with the patients. This was my plan. Just outside my office window there was a large pine tree — perhaps 60 feet in height — and some of our sufferers of wall-climber’s disease continuously climbed up it as we made every effort to keep them from doing so — a daunting task. One day, I noticed that Gerald (my orderly) was actually encouraging the saysquacks to go up the tree. I was about to punish him for his insubordination when I observed that the saysquacks in the tree were frantically but methodically snapping twigs and rearranging boughs. By sign and gesture, Gerald explained that saysquacks lived in trees and enjoyed high places.

I allowed the experiment to continue. My staff and I placed piles of leaves, twigs, timber and other building materials at the bottom of several trees, and encouraged our patients to make use of them. Many did so, and those that did not, watched from the windows of their rooms — even those who had been in a catatonic state for weeks. During the rest of the time, the nurses led the other saysquacks on strolls through the small woods at the back of the hospital. We fed them three bowls of warm milk for breakfast, biscuits at tea-time, corn mash for supper. On weekends there were tennis games, campfires, and “quack-a-longs.” On Sundays, there was church. Though we attempted to add additional structure through chores, the saysquacks seemed to gain more equilibrium through initiating their own activities — and we gave them leave to do so.

We eventually became known as Chateau du Arbre, which roughly translates to “tree house.” After five months in operation, two things caused the asylum to end in failure, one of which was success. Many of the saysquacks brought to us were, as I have said, considered hopeless cases, and yet better than 50% recovered and returned to the front. Instead of viewing the respite and care they received as having anything to do with their recovery, High Command took this as proof that they needed no care at all! It was the most absurd display of illogic I have ever witnessed. They claimed that the saysquacks’ rehabilitation was merely mollycoddling and a holiday. Even if it was a holiday (which it was not), saysquack soldiers were sorely in need of one.

Unlike their human counterparts, who were frequently rotated off the lines, the saysquacks, once ensconced in the trenches, were by and large expected to remain there until their deaths or the end of the war. Their stamina was believed to make them immune to the effects of combat, despite all evidence to the contrary. There were also fears that any saysquacks on leave would cause a ruckus, and would spread fear throughout the civilian populations of both home and host countries. Thus, the policy had a thin veneer of military justification, but was driven largely by prejudice. My attempts to overturn it — along with several other sympathetic physicians — earned us nothing but the ire of our superior officers, many of whom began to conspire against us, and use their power to sabotage our efforts to secure merciful and fair treatment for saysquack soldiers. Upon the release of secret memoranda after the war, I later learned that part of the reason my hospital was approved was that it would keep me occupied and divert my attention from these larger efforts at military reforms.

The second reason the Chateau du Arbre was closed is because my chief cook was placed under arrest by an agent of the Ministry of Food Control. As the rationing scheme became more strict, so did its enforcement. Late in the war, agents were deputized and were given the power to investigate any suspected wastage, theft or misappropriation of food, and to arrest and charge those responsible. Its mandates were intentionally vague and arbitrary, giving them a great deal of latitude with which to apply the “stick” of justice and mete out punishment to anyone who came crossways of them. What was worse, were the ghoulish measures taken by High Command regarding the saysquacks. All deceased saysquacks who were free of contagious disease were to be considered property of the Ministry of Food Control, who then deployed its agents to take possession of the bodies and do god-knows-what with them. Shortly after the war, it became public knowledge via a series of scandalous exposes, that the bodies were being processed as meat products for human civilians, soldiers and even for saysquack soldiers.

Though the vast majority of the saysquacks in our care lived and even recovered, there was one poor chap who succumbed to his distress and hung himself in the forest. The staff discreetly cut him down, and we held a funeral service for him which was attended by all. We gave him a burial befitting any soldier who did his bit for King and country, but made the mistake of marking his final resting place with a cross. In addition to fines and threats, the Ministry of Food Control also offered a bounty of 100 pounds to anyone who credibly informed them of any violations of the rationing laws.

It turned out that one such person was a member of our staff. We never found out who it was. But the day after the funeral, agents from the Ministry arrived with a wagon and a warrant. Our cook had nothing to do with the funeral, but because our deceased saysquack was now considered provender, it was he who took the blame. After a brief interrogation he was promptly arrested and charged with “felony theft and concealment of supplies vital to the war effort.” My attempts to intercede on his behalf nearly got me arrested as well. After the cook was led away in irons, we were ordered at gun point to exhume the body of our fallen comrade. I asked for an explanation, which was met with stern reprimands. I declined to comply with desecration of a grave, citing both moral and legal precedent. When they began bullying my staff, I ordered them to go inside the Chateau and bar the door.

After a tense moment where the officer in charge leveled his service revolver at me and foamed at the mouth whilst screaming, he holstered his pistol and ordered his subordinates to exhume the grave and retrieve the body. They did so as I stood by stoically, and my patients and staff stood with their faces pressed to the windows in abject horror.

After they left, not even bothering to fill in the hole of the now-empty grave, several days passed. The atmosphere was subdued. We all knew we had a spy in the house. Still, perhaps there was a chance that life might return to normal. The sun shined. The vegetables ripened. The events seemed like an awful dream. But the empty grave reminded us that it was no dream. Finally, four days later, it was not the agents of the Ministry of Food Control who appeared, but the Military Police. They had come for me. I was charged with insubordination, disrespect, and encouraging lawlessness to prevail under my command. The hospital was disbanded. The charges against me were eventually dropped, but I spent the rest of the war in prison awaiting the outcome, stripped of rank and privilege until the day I was mustered out of the army. That they were restored at all, was only due to the dogged efforts of my patron and benefactor Lady Vira St. Germaine. Thus ended my experiment in the treatment of psychologically wounded saysquacks.

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Dash Fire Diaries

Dash Fire Diaries

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Envisioning a past that never was. Step through a surreal portal where objective truth, imagined history and satirical fiction coexist.