[excerpt]

The battle to take Lima ended at six in the evening. In the following days, when a count of dead and wounded could be made, it was calculated that twenty percent of the combatants of both armies had died in those hours. Many more would die afterward as a consequence of infection. Field hospitals were improvised in a school and in tents set up nearby. The wind carried the stench of corruption for miles around. Exhausted doctors and nurses attended the wounded to the extent they were able, but there were more than twenty-five hundred wounded among Chileans ranks and, it was thought, at least seven thousand among the surviving Peruvians. The wounded piled up in corridors and in patios, lying on the ground until their turn came. The most serious were treated first, and Severo del Valle was not yet dying—despite a tremendous loss of strength, blood, and hope—so the stretcher bearers passed him by again and again, giving priority to others. The same soldier who had carried him on his back to the hospital ripped open Severo’s boot with his knife, cut off his blood-wet shirt, and with it improvised a binding for the butchered foot, because there were no available bandages, or medicines, or phenol for disinfectant, or opium, or chloroform—everything had been used up or lost in the chaos of the battle. “Loosen the tourniquet from time to time so gangrene doesn’t set in your leg, Lieutenant,” the soldier counseled. Before he said good-bye, he wished Severo good luck and gave him his most prized possessions: a pouch of tobacco and a canteen with his remaining liquor. Severo del Valle didn’t know how long he lay in that patio, perhaps a day, perhaps two. When finally he was picked up to be taken to the doctor, he was unconscious and dehydrated, but when they moved him the pain was so terrible that he woke with a howl. “Hang on, Lieutenant, there’s worse to come,” said one of the stretcher bearers. Severo found himself in a large room with sand covering the floor, where every so often a couple of orderlies emptied new pails of sand to absorb the blood and in the same buckets carried away amputated limbs to throw on the enormous pyre filling the valley with the odor of burned flesh. Operations on the unfortunate soldiers were performed on four wooden tables covered with metal plates; on the floor were pails of reddened water where sponges were rinsed after stanching blood from severed limbs and piles of rags torn into strips to use as bandages, everything filthy and gritty with sand and sawdust. On a side table were fearsome torture instruments—forceps, scissors, saws, needles—all crusted with dried blood. The cries of the patients filled the air, and the smell of decay, vomit, and excrement was asphyxiating. The doctor was an immigrant from the Balkans who had the hard, sure, quick air of an expert surgeon. He had a two-day growth of beard, eyes red-rimmed with fatigue, and he was wearing a heavy leather apron slick with fresh blood. He removed the improvised bandage from Severo’s foot, loosened the tourniquet, and needed only a glance to see that infection had set in and to decide to amputate. There was no doubt at all that he had been cutting off many limbs; he didn’t even blink.

“You have any liquor, soldier?” he asked in an obvious foreign accent.

“Water…” pleaded Severo del Valle, his tongue dry and swollen.

“Water comes after. Now you need something to dull you a little, but here we don’t have a drop of liquor,” said the doctor.

Severo pointed to the canteen. The doctor forced him to drink three long swallows, commenting that they had no anesthesia, and used the rest to wet some rags and clean his instruments. Then he signaled the orderlies, who took their places on either side of the table to hold the patient down. This is my hour of truth, Severo had time to think, and he tried to picture Nívea so that he wouldn’t die with the image in his heart of the girl he had gutted with his bayonet. A male attendant made a new tourniquet and tied it securely around Severo’s leg. The surgeon took up a scalpel, plunged it into flesh some twenty centimeters below the knee, and with a skillful circular motion cut through flesh to the bone. Severo del Valle screamed with pain and immediately lost consciousness, but the orderlies did not let go; they just held him down with greater determination as the doctor used his fingers to pull back skin and muscle, uncovering the bones: then he chose a saw and with three decisive strokes cut through them cleanly. The attendant pulled the cut veins from the stump, and the doctor tied them with incredible dexterity, then loosened the tourniquet slightly as the doctor covered the amputated bone with flesh and skin and stitched it together. The attendants swiftly bandaged the stump, then between them carried Severo to a corner of the room to make way for another patient to be brought, screaming, to the surgeon’s table. The entire operation had lasted fewer than six minutes.