Before I begin the story, I would like to say a few things. I wrote this short story in my seventh grade English class for a historical story assignment. I’m still discovering my writing style: I feel that the journey of discovering one’s style is one that lasts a lifetime. I don’t know why I felt it necessary to discuss this before sharing with you a work I am still so proud of to this day, but I suppose it does have some relevance. This story is a huge building block in my personality as an author, and I can’t even count the nights I spent sleepless, staring at hundreds of pages worth of information until I was as certain as I could be that the information I was writing was accurate and worthy of turning in to my teacher. And when I turned it in? My teacher, after leaving it untouched for two weeks while she looked at all the other stories, told me that she THOUGHT it was historically inaccurate and that I needed to redo it. No, she didn’t check the facts. She simply THOUGHT it to be false. So, being my perfectionistic self, I did it her way, the “right” way, but saved the original copy to my computer, waiting for the day I would share it with someone, anyone.
And this event has forever changed me as a writer.
We All Fall Dead
I can’t think of a summer that has been this harsh, that has taken so much from me. For weeks, now, it has been pestilence, and death. This malady is a cruel, fatal one. It works its way into the body causing tumor-like buboes as large as an apple in the armpits, neck, and groin. It then spreads itself in all directions, turning the buboes black and announcing certain death.
The village shivers and vomits blood. Until now, I’ve always felt my town is an attractive one, placed on the edge of the river Thames. Mine is a walled city, an amazing sight, with the walls being eighteen feet high and six feet thick, and the seven gate houses, each with massive oak doors, secured at night by heavy draw bars. In times of war, my entire city can be defended, yet it failed to protect us from the plague.
I catch a glimpse of myself in a looking glass. My eyes are deeply shadowed, flecked as they are with black. My face is oval shaped with high cheekbones, my complexion of a dark olive hue, evidence of my Celtic heritage. I wear a simple gown, fastened at the back. Around my neck is tied a ringlet of posies, a sure weapon against the plague. A small pouch hangs from a belt at my waist, carrying a small book, a gift from my father.
The infection, when my father contracted it, had seemed harmless enough. It began with a bubo on his neck, and muscle aches. But alas, by the second day, he was unable to leave his bed, so weakened was he by fever. Later, a man – a priest – came to allow father to confess his sins to him, just as every victim was allowed to do before death. I will not speak of the end, for him. It is too painful for me to bear thinking.
I wait for it…death. My own fevered and bloodied one.
Mother says it is the devil’s work. But, I know it in my mind. It is the rats that come up from the harbor. Brown rats, black rats, sewer rats…filled with fleas like the biblical plague. Splat – goes the rat catcher as he pierces them through the body, long tails twitching. The city fathers say it’s the cats and dogs, and so they have them killed by the thousands. But, I know. It is the rats.
I must leave for the countryside. Mother has acquired a certificate of good health signed by the Lord Mayor, so that we are allowed to leave the city gates. Mother calls it safe and remote, and it is surely safer than the city with its death carts. Oh, how I hate the death carts. They drive by, their wooden wheels clicking against the worn, cracked cobblestone streets, picking up the victims that lay on the ground, avoided by all who pass by.
As I finish packing, I take one last look at the place I have called home my entire life. I recount all of the times I had walked the stone floors, all the times I had stared at the beautiful tapestries that had once decorated the walls. I remember sitting at home, waiting for dinner, with the sweet aromas of my favorite dishes finding their way to me from the kitchen. I will miss this place, but, as Mother says, when the plague is over with us, if it ever is, we may return.
“Come, Alys,” Mother says from the hall. “The wagon has arrived.”
I sigh and take a final glance at my old bedroom before following mother out to the wagon. Tears threatened to spill, but I hold them in, swallowing the lump in my throat. There is no changing what is happening, no matter how much I wish to take back everything that has happened in the past few weeks.
A man – the driver of the wagon – takes my belongings and places them in the wagon before helping Mother and me into the leather seats. We sit as comfortably as we can, and soon, we are driving off. The tears threaten to escape once more as I steal one last glimpse at my old home, and I know in my heart that I will never return.
“Are you ready, Alys?” Mother asks me, placing her rough, bony hand on my knee. And then, looking at my face, she says, “Everything will be alright.” I give a slight nod, but really, I know that nothing will ever be alright, for in a world this dark and dismal, nothing can ever be alright.
Eight streets. That is how long it takes us to get from the old house to the city walls. Turns out, a person can relive their full life in a mere eight streets. I recall walking to the market, and going to the physician as a young child when I caught an illness. This beautiful town and the people in it have been my entire life, and I will miss them dearly.
Something catches my eye as we drive through, however. On the street, outside of a row of townhouses, I see three little girls, their long hair flowing behind them, singing a horrible, haunting rhyme:
“Ring-a-ring a roses,
a pocket full of posies,
A tishoo! A tishoo!
We all fall dead.”
As if on cue, the death bells ring for what seems like the hundredth time today. I cringe as I listen to the loud, awful sound that seems to echo through the empty air, marking the end of another victim’s life. However , the grim words of the rhyme stick in my mind, and its eerie melody sends shivers up my spine.
Suddenly, the smell of death grows even stronger, telling me we had passed through the city walls. The smell is worse than anything I could ever imagine. It was bad in the city, but here, nothing, not even my posies, can mask the smell whatsoever. The stench had a way of curling through the thick air, winding its way around and around. It is impossible to put something so horrible, so fetid, into words. I glance over at Mother, who looks as though she is going to vomit. However, looking out of the wagon, I saw that the source of the smell was just as atrocious as the smell itself.
I haven’t been outside the city walls ever since the Great Plague, as it is often called, has hit, and I now know why. Men in dirty clothing stand by the side of huge ditches, piles of bodies laying beside them. At first, I didn’t get what was going on, but it became clear to me what they were doing when I see one of the men putting a body in the ditch. They are burying them in mass graves.. Just the thought of that makes me sick, and it makes me realize that people are disgusting creatures, being controlled by a plague that is even worse than all of mankind. At this moment, I am glad that Mother and I are fleeing to the countryside. I did not want to take part in these horrible acts.
After what seems to be hours, we finally arrive at our new home. It looks a bit smaller than the old house, but it is away from everything; people, disease, and, most importantly, death.
“Take your things, Alys,” says Mother. “We shall begin unpacking today.”
I quickly comply, gathering my bags and hurrying into our new home. It has stone paved floors, just like the old house, but the walls are cold and empty – we have yet to hang the tapestries. In the first room I enter, there is grand fireplace. Windows let in the midday sun, and I stand in the light, absorbing the warmth on my bare face.
The next room I enter appears to be a kitchen. The floor is made of tiles, and a stone hearth sits in the middle of the area.
“Do you like it?” asks Mother.
“It’s beautiful,” I reply, vigorously nodding in agreement. Mother chuckles before telling me to go to my new bedroom and unpack my belongings.
Three days pass, and Mother and I are finally settled into our new home. I haven’t yet met any new people – there isn’t much to do around here, not with the plague still spreading. I’m not sure I want to go anywhere, yet, anyways. I still haven’t fully recovered from seeing the bodies of the victims, lying in careless rows in the ditches, the men effortlessly picking them up and placing them in without a second thought. There are, however, fewer rats here. That is something I could get used to.
Mother also seems to be getting better. Her dark brown eyes, flecked with black like mine, show signs of happiness again, and the grief seems to be fading. It is nice to see her doing more, and to see her doing it with reason. She has already begun to make more tapestries to hang on the walls.
Another week has passed. I notice red bumps appearing under my armpit, just as Father had when he was stricken the plague. They hurt terribly, and I told Mother immediately.
“Oh dear,” she says, and the same look of fear and sadness I had seen in her eyes when Father had gotten sick with the plague returns. Her hand immediately shoots up to my forehead. “You have a fever. Go lie down, Alys.” And I do just that, first changing into my sleepwear.
Mother summons the doctor. I have been sleeping most of the day, for my muscles ache far too badly to move and my fever prevents me from getting out of bed. By midday, I am vomiting, and I notice the buboes under my armpits beginning to change color. I knew that going to the countryside would only yield the Great Plague – nothing in this world could keep it away forever.
Doctor Greet is a large man who brings to mind the picture of a great brown bear, his grizzled appearance and massive hands at odds with the tiny round spectacles perched at the end of a large bulbous nose. The doctor sets his chest atop the dresser. He has all the latest in medicines: rosemary, mint, clover, horse radish, comfrey, sage, thyme, balm mint, blessed thistle, juniper, hollyhock, pyrethrum, and angelica. He carries an assortment of tools in his chest, including knives, razors, head saws, cauterizing irons, and many others that I did not recognize. His syrups he had made were flavored with vanilla, honey, licorice, nutmeg, ginger, and mint. Lastly, the doctor removes from his medicine chest a mask in the shape of a bird’s beak and places it over his nose; it contains a perfumed sponge to protect him from the contagion. Everyone knows that the smell of the infectious disease causes its spread.
The doctor gives me one of his syrups, and, by the time he is able to do anything else, my fever brings me to a state of delirium, and I cannot recall what happened.
I feel much worse the next day. The buboes under my armpits have turned a dark purple-almost black. Mother says that my fever is higher than it had been yesterday. My muscles ache worse than ever, and I can feel a bad headache coming on. I sleep most of the day, dreaming of doctors that turn into crows before they attack the plague victims. I know that it is probably just the delirium from the high fever creating those images, but I cannot ignore them.
The doctor returns, dressed head to toe in the same horrifying outfit as before. He puts me on a diet of only bread and vegetables, the same meal the peasants eat day after day. It isn’t my first choice in meals, but I am not very hungry, anyhow. The doctor also treats me by doing something they hadn’t done to Father when he got plague. He cuts open the buboes under my armpits and lets out the blood, which is vile and black. He explains how they have discovered that the disease must be in the blood – that is how it spreads so quickly. By letting out the blood, he says that he will be letting the disease out of my system. It makes sense, but something still seems a bit off to me. After he cuts open the buboes, the doctor applies a mixture of tree resin, roots of white lilies, and dried human excrement to the places he had cut me. Then he leaves, his leather shoes click-clacking against the stone floors, and I fall asleep.
Death comes for me the next day. I knew it would happen eventually, but before, I did not let myself think about it; I could not. I promised myself that when it arrived, I would think of the happy times I shared with my family. I can still remember playing checker games against Mother when Father was working late. I remember the dance she used to do when she had won; jumping up and twirling me around and around the room until we both fell on the floor, laughing all the while.
I shared many great memories with my family, but those are not, in fact, my thoughts when I die. All I can think of when death consumes me is the frightening rhyme those three little girls were singing as I left town:
“Ring-a-ring a roses,
A pocket full of posies
A tishoo! A tishoo!
We all fall dead.”