It is a cold and windy fall in Milan, Italy. Though he is not fighting anymore, the narrator notes that World War I is always in the background. Every afternoon the narrator goes to a hospital where he and the other patients sit in machines designed to heal their war-related injuries. The narrator has hurt his knee and his machine tries to get his leg to bend again. Next to him, the major receives treatment for his withered hand. The major listens politely to the doctor as he shows him photographs of successful previous cases, but does not hide his skepticism.
There are three other “boys” the narrator’s age who also receive treatment every day at the hospital. Except for the American narrator, all are from Milan, and the four of them stick together as they walk through to communist quarter to the Café Cova. The people in the communist quarter shout anti-military slogans at the officers as they pass by. Sometimes the boy with no nose joins the group as they walk; he wears a handkerchief across his face, and had been injured only an hour into his first battle.
The four officers, not including the boy with no nose, have all received medals for their contributions to the war. The boy with three medals had been an elite lieutenant and is distant because of his experiences with death. In fact, all of the officers are “a little detached,” and the only thing anchoring them to daily life is their routine at the hospital. They feel like bonded together because other people don’t understand what they’ve been through.
The other officers ask the narrator about his medals, but seeing his papers, they realize he was basically awarded for being an American. The others had performed dangerous, daring feats to earn their medals, and as such no longer really consider the narrator one of them, though he is still “a friend against the outsiders.” Sometimes, the narrator imagines achieving the same heights of valor as the other officers. But walking back alone through the cold streets, he thinks he could never be a “hunting hawk” like them. He is too afraid of death, often lying awake at night terrified of returning to the front. He remains friends with the boy with no nose, however, because he had had no chance to prove himself either; they feel comfortable together, neither of them hawks.
The major comes to the hospital everyday even though he does not believe in the machines’ ability to heal him, calling it all “nonsense.” He teaches the narrator Italian grammar. One day, he asks the narrator what he will do when he returns home. When he says he plans to marry, the major responds angrily, telling the narrator men shouldn’t marry as they should not put themselves into a position where they could face loss. Not meeting the narrator’s eye, he asserts that if something can be lost then it will be lost, and storms out to another therapy room. Later, he returns to apologize for his rudeness, and explains his wife has just died. Crying yet still refusing to meet anyone’s eye, the major walks out of the room, remaining tall and dignified as he does so.
The doctor informs the narrator the major’s young wife died unexpectedly from pneumonia. At their next session, the doctor has put up more photographs illustrating the machines’ successes. The narrator notes this is odd, as he always thought they were the first batch of soldiers to trial them. It doesn’t matter to the major anyway, as he simply stares out the window.