Wednesday morning, December 10, 1941
The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, New York City
Claire Shipley was no doctor, but even she could see that the man on the stretcher was dying. His lips were blue from lack of oxygen. His cheeks were hollow, his skin leathery and tight against his bones. His eyes were open but unfocused, like the glass eyes in a box at a doll factory she’d once photographed. Although his hair was full and dark brown, not gray, Claire pegged him at over eighty. His head swayed from side to side as the orderlies slid the stretcher out of the ambulance and onto the gurney. Beneath the once-white blanket, his right leg was grotesquely swollen.
Making a split-second appraisal of the scene, guided by intuition, Claire crouched and pivoted until she found the best angle. Using the 35mm lens, she stopped down on the Leica to increase the depth of field. She took a quick series of photos, bracketing to guarantee the exposure: the patient in profile and a half-dozen nurses, doctors, and orderlies gathered around him, like a group portrait by Rembrandt, their faces saying their thoughts. They knew he was dying, too. Out here in the cold without their coats on, with the man looking dead already and nobody else nearby but Claire, they dispensed with their usual cheery and encouraging expressions.
The group proceeded into the hospital. Claire followed, the others oblivious to her. She was like a spy, paid to fit in, to hide in plain sight, her identity and her loyalties concealed. Her ability to hide in plain sight was a paradox, even to herself, because she was physically striking. Had the others taken the time to notice her, they would have seen a thirty-six-year-old woman filled with the confidence and glamour of success, tall, slender, strong, her arms and shoulders shaped from carrying heavy photographic equipment. Her thick dark hair fell in waves to her shoulders. Her face was broad, her features well-defined, the type of face that photographs well. She wore her usual winter uniform of loose navy-blue trousers, cashmere sweater over silk blouse, and a beige fleece-lined jacket with eight pockets. It was a hunter’s jacket, and she’d ordered it from a specialty store. Claire Shipley was a hunter: searching and waiting for the proper angle, the telling moment, for a narrative to give sense to the jumble of existence.
Upstairs, the group crowded into a private room. In one coordinated heave the orderlies shifted the patient from the gurney to a bed. The man moaned. At least the orderlies were quick. The staff bustled around the bed, taking the patient’s pulse, drawing blood, rearranging his useless limbs. In the enclosed space, the rotting stench he gave off assaulted Claire. She felt a constriction of revulsion and forced herself to ignore it, because the man’s eyes were alive now. Golden-brown eyes, shifting slowly, their movement consuming his energy. His eyes followed the voices of the nurses. When Claire’s daughter, Emily, was a newborn, her delicate face peering from a wrap of pink blankets, her eyes had followed Claire’s voice around the room just so while Claire’s husband held her.
Claire felt a piercing ache. Her daughter had died seven and a half years ago. June 13th would mark eight years. Rationally, Claire knew that seven and a half years was a long time. Nonetheless sudden, intense memories jarred her, bringing Emily back with painful clarity. Claire’s husband was gone, too, although by now she could usually keep a mental door closed on the anger and despondency that followed his departure. Automatically Claire did a maternal check-in: her younger child, Charlie, was safe at school. Later he would be at home following his usual routine with Maritza, their housekeeper, who was like a grandmother to him.
At the recollection of tucking a wool scarf into Charlie’s coat this morning, Claire confronted the dying man before her.
Excerpted from A Fierce Radiance, copyright 2010 by Lauren Belfer. HarperCollins Publishers. All Rights Reserved.