The morning is somber under clouds. Weak light filters in through the square window, hardly illuminating Nick’s small ward, whitewashed like limestone, filled with a pungent smell of disinfectant. The walls are almost bare save for a hanging calendar flipped to October 1918.
Leaning against a thick pillow on the white-sheeted metal bed, Nick stares blankly at his hands crossed on his stomach. These hands used to make him proud. They held the rifle firmly, aimed at the target, and fired with unbelievable precision. But now these hands, like withered trees, are littered with scars and burn marks that are turning pale and dry.
His eyes trace down the blanket wrapped around him, which lays flat beyond his knees, empty of legs. A hollow ache settles deep in his chest. Fragments of images stab him like shards of glass: the shaking and rumbling ground, the blast under his feet, the blood gushing from his wounds. Those were the last things he remembered on the battlefield in Germany—before everything went dark. Before he was rescued to the medical tent, then flown back to his homeland and treated in this hospital.
He lost both legs, but he is still alive. Many of his friends didn’t make it. Their young faces emerge and recede within him—for one moment, they are playing cards and chatting about how they will celebrate Christmas; for the next moment, they are soaked in blood, their eyes gaping wide.
A storm of grief hits Nick, and burning tears press at his eyes. What’s the purpose of living? He keeps asking himself this question, without an answer.
In the afternoon, the sun tears through the clouds, making the day brighter.
Kathy, the nurse who regularly checks on Nick and administers medication, enters his room with a wicker basket hooked over her arm. Slim and fair-skinned, she always has a calm demeanor, her auburn hair twisted into neat coils beneath her white cap.
“Guess what I brought for you.” She holds the basket in front of him, a smile blooming on her face. Inside are rolls of colored yarns and several knitting needles.
Kathy sits down in the chair next to his bed, setting the basket on her lap and picking out a roll of green yarn. “Feeling bored? Knitting is very relaxing and fills up a lot of time. I can teach-”
“No,” Nick breaks in before she completes her sentence. What will become of me now—a knitter? The thought unsettles him. “Not for me. Please take them away.”
“But why not give it a try? Some soldiers are learning to knit, and they enjoy it. Feel how soft it is.” She hands the roll of yarn to him, but he pushes it away.
“I said, take them away,” Nick repeats, in a harsher tone.
At dusk, Kathy is back with the wicker basket. Nick thinks she will try to persuade him again, but instead, she asks in a gentle voice, “I’ve finished my shift for the day. Do you mind if I stay a little longer and do some knitting here? I like the natural light from the window.”
He shrugs his shoulders. “Fine with me.”
“Great.” She beams and sits next to the window facing his bed. She picks up a pair of wooden knitting needles and a skein of light blue yarn, casting stitches onto the needles. The amber twilight softened by the tinted autumn leaves veils her delicate features. She looks still and peaceful while her fingers skillfully work the needles into each stitch and knit across rows.
The clicks of the needles remind Nick of his mother knitting sweaters for him when he was a boy. She sat in a rocking chair by the fireplace, with her knitting work in her hands, humming an old folk song, as Nick trundled his wooden toy trains across the carpet of the living room. That was her way of relaxing after a long day of housework. She also crocheted pretty doilies and table centers to add a touch of elegance to their old farmhouse.
Then he thinks of his father, a heavy-set man who liked hunting. In autumn, his father often clutched his hunting gun and groped onto a wooded hill. He would bring home a rabbit or a pheasant he had shot. Nick learned how to shoot from him and even outshined his father.
The memories bring him a grain of comfort. He closes his eyes, as the rhythmic clicks tinkle in his ears like music.
For the next several days, Kathy comes again after her shift and knits for about half an hour in the chair by the window. Nick learns that she has a six-year-old son, and the sweater is for him. She asks for his opinion on the shade of yellow that best matches the blue. She also tells him how she learned knitting when she was a child. Her first piece was a dress for her doll. The dress had uneven stitches and was a little asymmetrical, but she was proud of herself.
She has a knack for drawing attention to her stories—her light-hearted tone, her silvery laugh, and her keen interest in the topics. Without realizing it, he finds himself chuckling at her jokes, offering comments, and even talking about himself. It is the most relaxing time of his day, helping him tentatively escape from his phantom memories.
He waits for the end of Kathy’s shift, for the door to whoosh open, for her knitting silhouette, framed in the gauzy sunlight. He enjoys watching the loose thread being woven into something warm and beautiful, the feeling of expectation that he hasn’t had for a long time.
Kathy stitches together all the knitted pieces and lifts the finished product, a butterscotch-and-azure striped sweater, for Nick to see. He squeezes a dry smile, but inside him is a slight feeling of loss.
She passes him the sweater. Its comforting softness along with the sun-kissed warmth makes him feel like a young boy being asked by his mother to try on the new pullover. His heart trembles in a secret place that he isn’t aware of.
Kathy organizes leftover yarn into her basket. Nick opens his mouth to say something but doesn’t know how to start. When he finally speaks, his words are garbled and clipped.
“You think…uh…it might…” he struggles for words. “It might be better if there’s a scarf matching it?”
She turns to him, her hazel eyes lighting up. “That’s a wonderful idea,” she says, “but I probably won’t have time for it.”
“I can help…I mean…if you don’t mind teaching me how to knit.” Nick forces his voice to sound controlled.
“Of course.” She grins.
That same afternoon, Nick has his first knitting lesson. Kathy teaches him how to make a slip knot and knit and purl stitches. His broad and calloused hands fumble about the knitting needles. His strong index finger that used to poise on the trigger of a gun now presses a thin needle wrapped in light yellow yarn.
“Knit one, purl one. Knit one, purl one…” She asks him to repeat the mantra as his fingers knit stitches in rows. His hands are shaky, his forehead is coated with sweat, and he loses count of stitches a couple of times, but he is thrilled when he finishes his first two rows.
The following day, Nick asks a nurse to help him settle into his wheelchair and push him next to the window, where Kathy used to sit and knit the sweater. For all those days in this hospital, he has never been so close to the window. He is surprised to see that the hospital overlooks a harbor, a span of sapphire water bordered by big elm trees. A heron skims across the shimmering water and soars effortlessly to the sky.
Nick picks up his knitting work and plies his needles the way Kathy has taught him. His eyes are fixed on the needle tips, and his mouth counts stitches in a murmuring voice. New rows of stitches slip out of his needles. The stitches are not as neat as he wishes, but he doesn’t miss any, which brings him a tiny surge of satisfaction. For years, he was trained to use his hands to destroy things, but now he is tasting the joy of creating things.
He is so focused that he does not notice Kathy come in and stand next to him with a piece of newspaper in her hand. Panting with excitement, she calls Nick, making him drop a stitch. She hands him the newspaper with a dazzling headline: “Great War Ends.”
“The war is over. Germany has signed the armistice terms!” Her voice rises to an exclamation.
“The war is over,” he repeats, slowly. His heart thunders with those words. Tears spring to his eyes and blur the words in the newspaper on the lap of his amputated legs.
He turns to the window and blinks to keep back his tears. A puff of the breeze brings a refreshing feeling through the open window. He turns back and holds up what he has knitted to Kathy. Its yellow color is as bright as daffodils that bloom even in winter.
“Do you think the scarf can be done before Christmas?” he asks, glancing at her.
“I have no doubt,” she replies, her eyes steady on him.
Author Note: At the time of World War I, wounded veterans learned knitting in hospitals as a therapeutic method. Knitting not only helped patients relax and get out of the chaotic memories of death and destruction, but also made them feel useful and productive.
Allison Xu is a writer from Rockville, Maryland. Her poems and short stories have been published in Blue Marble Review, Unbroken, Daphne Review, Bourgeon Magazine, 50-Words Stories, and elsewhere. When she’s not writing, she enjoys reading, baking, and playing with her beagle.