It was late when I got off duty. I didn’t even stop at the nurses’ barracks to change my uniform, but went directly out into the woods that surrounded the neuropsychiatric wing of the big Army hospital. The leaves under my feet were thick and dry, and as I waded through them I was aware of the tangy smell of autumn. The keys to Ward 8, worn on a long rope around my waist, jingled as I walked.
Anthony D. Nardo* was a young GI, a victim of combat fatigue. Diagnosis: agitated depression, manic-depressive type. I was a cadet nurse, sound of mind, on loan from a civilian hospital. And yet, that very afternoon, standing together on the sun porch of Ward 8, Tony and I had shared an incredible vision. The thing we had seen was somewhere in these woods. I had to find out what it really was, to prove to him that it was only an illusion and thereby end its threat to his recovery.
I thought about the day that Tony had been admitted, three months before. I saw him as he was then, bound to a canvas stretcher, his tousled hair ebony-black. I had watched as a medical corpsman removed his straps and led him into a room where he was to be confined for seven weeks. Beneath gray pajama sleeves, white bandages encircled both his wrists.
His face was angular and elongated, and in it I saw a quality of tenderness. Something within me had stirred with an answering tenderness, so that during the days that followed, I favored him over all the others.
Tony had been evacuated from his post in the South Pacific, where on a certain morning he had removed the double-edged blade from a razor and slashed the arteries in both his wrists. All through the early days of his stay on Ward 8, the pale hands tore at their restraints in a desperate effort to rip apart the sutures. For seven weeks he did not speak or even lift his eyes.
In time, the wounds began to heal, and the tortured hands relaxed. Slowly the spirit found its way out of the darkness. I watched him as he moved about the ward, straight and sure. I saw him ministering to the needs of his fellow patients with the wisdom of one who knew the demons that possessed them.
Tony was almost well. Even our skeptical chief nurse, Lt. Barbara Rankin, was forced to concede it. But then, without warning, on this day in late October, a phantom thing had threatened to destroy him.
The day had begun like any other. I reported for duty at 7 a.m. At noon, I went to lunch. Lieutenant Rankin was waiting for me in her office when I got back. “You’d better go and have a look at your protégé,” she said.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing much.” Her voice was granite. “He just got a little excited when he saw the Virgin Mary standing in the woods, that’s all!”
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I turned and ran to Ward 8. I found him kneeling, his forehead pressed against the wire screen which surrounded the sun porch. His eyes were fixed on a spot somewhere out in the woods. He was praying softly.
My voice came out harsh and shaky. “What are you doing, Tony?” I said. “Get up!”
“But you don’t understand,” Tony said. “I can see the Virgin standing there!” Then he looked up at me. “Is there a statue out there?” he asked.
“No, Tony. I know those woods. There’s nothing out there. Now, please get up!”
He turned from me and looked out again into the woods. For a long time I stood above him, wishing that I could take the dark head in my hands and soothe away the dreadful danger. But one does not do such a thing, especially when one is a student nurse.
Instead, my eyes wandered absently out over the woods, while a dreaded word rose up and pushed against my throat: hallucination. Now he must indeed be judged insane.
But as I gazed, my eyes were drawn to something white—and there in the distance among the trees I saw the figure of the Virgin!
I must have cried aloud because Tony turned his head and looked at me. “Ah, you see her too!”
“Yes, I see her too …”
The rest of the afternoon passed slowly, but at last I was off duty and free to search for the strange Madonna. I felt relief in the knowledge that I had only to find the logical source of the illusion to prove that Tony was not hallucinating.
It was getting dark and cold. I folded my arms against my body underneath my cape, shivering. And then I saw it, just ahead of me.
“Miracles come in many sizes,” he said.
A white birch stump, tall and slender, had been carved by the hand of time and weather into an abstract image of the Madonna. Even at this close range, the delicate curve of head and shoulder, the graceful draping of the mantle, were clearly visible in the polished bark.
I rushed back to the ward. Tony was sitting on a wooden bench, staring out into the woods. He spoke without looking up.
“Did you find what you were looking for?”
Suddenly I was afraid. Tony seemed prepared for a simple answer, logical and conclusive. But I knew that I had stumbled upon something inscrutable, a thing that transcended reason, and I was afraid that Tony was not well enough to cope with such a mystery. “It was nothing—just a white birch stump,” I whispered.
I should have known that it would not end there.
Late in November, Tony was transferred to a ward where he was free to come and go about the hospital grounds. Seeing him grow stronger day by day, I began to believe that I had been wise in keeping silent about what I had really seen. So I held the lovely secret in my heart, hoarding it—I’m sure the other nurses wondered why I walked alone in the barren woods so often.
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It was a week before Christmas. My training period was over, and I was being reassigned. I said goodbye to Tony and learned that he had been given leave to go home for the holidays. Then I went to my room and began to pack. Suddenly I saw that a light snow was falling, just beginning to adhere to the branches of the trees. I got my coat and went outside.
The wind was cold on my face, and I blinked my eyes against it. My heart was beating very fast, and I began to run. And then, within a few yards of my destination, I stopped.
There, on a glistening blanket of snow, clad in a heavy coat of olive drab, a solitary figure knelt, the white flakes falling like weightless feathers on his bare head. He knelt at the feet of the woodland Madonna, which was clothed in a new whiteness.
When he finished his prayer, I did a thing that one does not do when one is a student nurse. I moved to the place where he knelt and stood behind him, taking the dark head in my hands. I brushed away the snow that had collected in his hair.
“You’ll catch your death of cold,” I said.
He looked up at me, and I could see that he had been expecting me.
“Miracles come in many sizes,” he said.
Then he stood and turned to face me, smiling. And in his smile were all wisdom and all tenderness—and I knew that he was well.
*Names have been changed.
Originally published in Reader’s Digest in 1960
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