The Pale, Pale Face
Some days, that dark navy-blue uniform that hangs drowsily in the closet calls for my gaze; the threading and stitching that holds it all together captures me for a time. To untrained eyes, this simple jacket may appear as merely a garment once worn — but, to me, it’s a lasting symbol of what once was…who I once was. The things I once did. The sights I’ve seen. I can stare at each crease, every fold, and all of the perfect little imperfections that linger, and tell you the stories that go with them.
…not all stories, mind you…there are some I keep just to myself.
A story I can bestow to you transpired on a chilled November night. The air held in it a whisper of winter storm, a faint croon of cooler weather soon to come. It was dark, damp, and late into our shift. We had been called to the city’s north-east end, to one of the many parks that hug the contours of the river line. Some late-night walking enthusiasts that reside in the area had come across a sight that evoked enough fright within them, that they ran from the woods, calling 9-1-1, and choosing to never look back.
My partner and I were the first unit to respond. After parking the ambulance on the flattest patch of grass we could find, we dismounted, and began making our way to the wooden staircase that led to the walking trails. Standing at the top of the steps were two emotionally heightened individuals — a man, and a woman. Their voices struggled and cracked as they tried to inform us of why they had called for help. After listening as best we could, we ascertained that somewhere in the bush, deep within the trails there lay a body. The two hikers had caught glimpse of it while on their walkabout, and then ran unhinged in a direction opposite of the ghoul. They each spoke through restrained incredulity, I believe deciding whether or not to reveal the most unnerving detail of their encounter — they went on to state that the body they had unwittingly come across defied all known universal logic, and in one horrible moment, blinked at them!
Their version of events was unsettling on its own merit — but now my partner and I, were to descend the sixty, or so, wooden steps down into the darkness below, and wander toward the unknown. We’d been to this area before for other calls, during the day, however, but we knew from those previous experiences that our radios failed to work down there — that only further validated our shared unease.
After a cursory glance at one another, Dawson and I began our trepidous descent. The wood of the steps was slick, making manoeuvrability a treacherous endeavour. Especially while under the burden of our weighted gear. One by one, and with utmost caution, we lumbered our way into the bowels of the ravine.
When me made it to the bottom, a static sound of fast-moving water loomed to our right, and overhead, colliding with the foliage above was the beads of falling rain. Without our flashlights, visibility would have been near to impossible. After motivating ourselves, Dawson and I began navigating the trail in the direction the hikers had indicated to us. I’ll tell you this, traipsing on a winding path in the black of night, with near to no ambient light to lend assistance in the direction of a “dead” body known to “blink” is about as psychologically uncomfortable an experience as one can endure.
I always hated walking up to a scene where there was prior knowledge of death waiting to greet us; it’s an ominous walk. Murder scenes were particularly bad for this — as were suicide calls. The thing about this one, was that there was no context; merely a two-person eye-witness account of some kind of body lain within an arbitrary set of bushes in a wooded area somewhere. They script bad horror movies with less material than this.
We walked for about twelve-or-so minutes, following a gentle curve in the trail. We stopped and used the beams of our flashlights to scan the area ahead, and around us. I cast my light off to my left, into a thickened coagulation of vegetation. As I did, a piercing sight glared back at me — it was the pale face of a human body. It almost glowed in its contrasted surroundings. I felt a sudden call to ‘run’ seep into the marrow of my bones, but I resisted. I instead didn’t move an inch. My eyes were now transfixed onto the sickly features of this harrowing sight.
“Dawson…Dawson — look!” I indicated the direction I wanted Dawson to observe, and he obliged.
“…Jesus. That is fucking terrifying.” And he was right, it was. But then things became downright horrifying — just as fabled to us by the two hikers at the top of the stairs, this pale face in the bushes blinked a slow and ghostly blink. The body was alive!
“Christ!” Dawson exclaimed while stepping back. I was still unable to free from my rigidity. Both Dawson and I stood next to one another for a second or two, unravelling the eccentricity of our unfolding experience. At some point, I was able to muster a voice, and I called out toward the body.
“…Hey…we’re paramedics — I’m going to come near you, okay? Are you hurt?” Another blink was offered, but no answer. As I neared, I heard the beat of my frightful heart punish the inside of my chest. The closer I got, the ghastlier this face in the bush became. It was a female, long thin strands of black hair clung to the pallor features of her weary face. I was cautious as I neared, unable to see her hands, or any part of her body, just the complexion of a dead woman resting on the skin and bones of one that was alive…somewhat.
“Ma’am, are you hurt anywhere? Are you able to talk? Do you understand what I am asking?” I said these things as I bent at the knees and lowered myself nearer to her level. Once I was positional to the patient, I was able to observe that she was lain on her back, and dressed inappropriately for the weather, all she had on was a pair of soaked denim jeans, and a t-shirt. As I was taking visual inventory of this woman, she spoke her first intelligible utterance in our presence.
“…Fuck off — Moniyaw!” Moniyaw, this is a Cree word meaning, “white man,” and in my experience with it, it was generally used with derogatory intent. Her voice was thin, hardly audible at all. She would have had to muster all strength that remained within her to be able to levy such a moniker toward me in her state.
This is when I first locked eyes with her; they were black. I mean, truly and inarguably black. They looked demonic, which was juxtaposed to her overall station at that moment — to me, she appeared more near to death, and sad over that of anything supernatural. At the end of her statement, she raised one of her arms, and attempted to swing it in my direction. A facsimile of a punch, if you will. Motivated by umbrage of presence, it seemed. This is when I took note of something peculiar, an oddity near the wrist of her vengeful hand. When her singular volley was complete, I reached over and took hold of her arm to investigate what my eyes had observed.
The consternated lines of my face began to soften, and recede. The body in the bush, the woman, had a long, serrated laceration spanning from her wrist toward her elbow. At some point before being discovered, this poor soul had tried to end her own life. There was even a note resting near her feet, but it was damp and tattered by the elements, nothing was legible. In spite of her best efforts, her saving grace was the weather — the coolness of the air, combined with her now hypothermic state had stayed the bleeding for long enough that she now found herself in the company of two scared-shitless paramedics.
I relayed my findings to Dawson, and it was decided that we needed to move with haste to get this woman out of her current situation. However, we had no stretcher, and no real way of carrying her, and all of our gear — so it was decided that Dawson was going to jog back to the stairs, ascend and call for additional resources. That meant that I was to remain in the darkened forest with a dying woman who seemingly loathed my perceived colonial ancestry.
I spoke before about how walking toward the dead is an unnerving task; well, standing beside those who wish to die, and have attempted to the best of their abilities to do so, all while alone in an ebonised forest is no less so a horrid affair.
I attempted several times to bandage the woman’s wrist, but each time I tried, she writhed, and would spit at my face. She spoke hatred toward me in a language I know very little of. I was able to decipher that she believed me to be a “dirty white man,” and as such, she wanted nothing to do with me. I was able to ignore the insults, as well as finally bandage her wrist. After doing so, I began to search around her for anything that she may have used to inflict such wounds to herself, and off to her right side was an open blade from a pocket knife. Blood still stained the blade itself. With gloved hand I reached over and removed it from harms way.
I recall feeling a great sense of sadness when looking at this woman. She was no longer a frightful figure in the forest, she was a woman near death on a blackened November night. I began to speak to this sombre soul, telling her that I didn’t want her to die. I admitted to knowing nothing about the woman’s life, nor the reasons that led to her laying in those bushes, freezing and exsanguinating. But I didn’t need to know the reasons to feel the way I felt. Despite her current outward appearance, there was a gentleness behind her sullen disposition.
“Ma’am — I’m sorry you feel this way. I am. But, we’re going to get you out of here, okay…we’re going to help you, I promise. Please, believe me when I say this to you, there is always another way.” She looked at me as I spoke, but returned nothing except an apathetic stare. She turned away from me, and started to weep.
Dawson would eventually return, and with the help of some firefighters, we were able to retrieve this woman and carry her to safety.
…Two weeks later she was found dead near the riverbank some kilometers away from where we had found her. It’s important to me that when I tell this story, I say that we took her to “safety,” and not claim that we “saved” her. Because we didn’t. There was no saving that one. And as much as I comprehend that it wasn’t, and never will be up to me to decide who lives and who dies, nothing will make a medic feel as powerless quite like the tragic loss of a wayfaring soul.
That’s only one wrinkle within the dark navy-blue uniform I once wore. I suppose now it would be better described as a scar to the soul, as opposed to a blemish on fabric.
That is my paramedic story. The happy ending is a subtle one; it comes in the revelation that it is I who has survived. I have found my way from darkened woods, and isolation, and have now crafted a new life. One replete with peace, happiness, and recovery. One day at a time. So that uniform will remain hanging in the closet. I can’t use it anymore. Though some days I miss it — intervening on people’s worst days — I am reminded by a beleaguered mind and an aching heart of the potency that tragedy and repetition can have on a soul. And in that, I take solace in the peace of tomorrow, and leave the uniform hanging right where it is, so that it too may find a sense of peace.
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