Friday 19 April 2013

#FridayFlash - Abandon Hope

The church bell stopped tolling two days ago. Mother thought it meant that the distemper had left us, and would plague our city no more. Father thought that the churches had become overwhelmed, and we would be left to rot in vast pits sunk into rotten ground. Father was right - even now, I can hear the cries of the infected drifting through my window. Two of the houses in our street have been shut up, their inhabitants dying or dead. Three houses in our street lie empty; two because their owners fled into the country when the sickness approached our parish, and one because the entire family perished. Should ours be next?

My sister fears the cries for help that go unanswered and begs me to close the casement, but I cannot bear the stuffiness of our house. Our two maidservants and my brother have caught the distemper, and lie in their sickbeds. The whole house smells of the preservatives my Father bought from a gentlemen physician in Whitecross Street, and I cannot bear their stench. Yet I may not stir out of doors as we have been shut in to prevent the sickness spreading. My brother begged us to remove him to the attic, along with the maidservants, and none are allowed near them save the nurse. My brother remains thoughtful even in his illness.

Father brings me a preservative and begs me to take it, yet I cannot see what this poultice can do in the face of God's wrath. He tells me that it came highly recommended by the physician, a new arrival from the city of Naples, and I asked if it came also at a high price. He reminds me of the sickness within our house, but I believe that if it is God's will that I be spared, then spared I shall be.

Mother asks that I visit the watchman outside our door, placed there to prevent our escape. We have heard rumours of other houses being shut up to contain the sickness, but the inhabitants have fled under cover of darkness, even with the distemper upon them. We none of us wish to die, or sicken, but Mother refuses to leave her son. "We will leave when he does," she says. "Aye," adds my father, "either on foot or in the dead-cart." Mother asks me to give an errand to the watchman; our supplies of bread run low, and we shall need more.

I run down the stairs and knock three times on the door. After the scraping of bolts, the door is pushed ajar, and the watchman peers inside. He asks if I require the dead-cart, and smiles when I shake my head. The watchman knows my brother, and wishes him well. I ask if I may step outside for air while I relate my errand, and the watchman hesitates but a brief moment before allowing that I may do so.

I step into the street and take in the sight. This thoroughfare should be thronged with people, and children should play between the feet of the crowds, but only hunched figures, their faces shrouded with cloths, venture along our street today. The watchman sees my distress, and engages me in idle conversation, asking after my sister while entertaining me with snippets of gossip from the alehouse, now lying quiet as the distemper grips our parish. Time passes and Mother calls down the stairs. Life returns to me, removing my momentary escape, and I give the watchman the message from Mother. He asks me to return inside the house before he leaves for the market. I turn, and look at the door.

A cross, a foot high at least, is daubed upon the door in red paint. I cry out at the reminder of our plight. The watchman ushers me inside, and bolts the door behind me. I sit on the bottom step of the stairs, and I allow a sob to escape my throat.

Father shouts down to me. My brother's sores have broken, and his fever wanes. He is weak, but awake. I run up the stairs, calling his name.

May God have such mercy on us all.

Inspired by Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, which is my current reading material.


Cat Russell said...

Wow. That really scared me. I have goose pimples.

Larry Kollar said...

I really enjoyed the hopeful note at the end of this. See, it wasn't all depressing!

Is "distemper" what they called bubonic plague, then?

Tony Noland said...

Loved the emotion you packed into this. I'll be honest... people forced to stay indoors, low-grade panic everywhere... reminded me of what's going on today in Boston.

Katherine Hajer said...

Cool! A very effective description of the situation -- I would have been glad to read more.

Sulci Collective said...

you pulled a beaut out Icy considering your tweet that it wasn't happening for you. Excellent stuff

marc nash

John Wiswell said...

It's funny you were having trouble producing a flash this week. The voice is damned strong and would hold the whole piece up without assistance, but the intrigue of what's going on with our poor protagonist is strong as well.

Helen A. Howell said...

Extremely well written Icy, you managed to take right there with the girl allowing us to see what she sees. It must have been a terrible time for them all.

mazzz_in_Leeds said...

I'm going to have to berate John for having the audacity to write the comment I wanted to write before I got the chance! Very well written, very good voice, great sense of time, place and tension

Bevimus said...

I was right there with your MC, seeing the scene through her eyes. I loved her faith in the face of such death and her feeling of not knowing what to do with herself. Really, really strong voice.

Icy Sedgwick said...

I'm glad everyone has enjoyed this. The story came about after reading several passages in A Journal of the Plague Year in which Defoe's narrator describes the practice of 'shutting up' houses in which the plague was known to be (AKA distemper, sickness, infection) in an attempt to prevent its spread. Some of those shut up with sick servants/relatives remained shut up, and others broke out to try and avoid catching it themselves, and thereby spreading it further. I just wondered how it would feel to be one of those who have been shut up - such a painful waiting game.

Post a Comment