Death has sounds. Coughing, spluttering, a strange sort of gurgle… I can’t help but notice them as I walk down the cobblestone street, scarf pulled across my face hoping to fend off some of the illness in the air. Though it’s not illness, we all know this, we’ve known it for some time.
It’s a plague.
We’re not sure how it reached our shores, and I don’t think anyone actually cares. What we care about is surviving, and the odds are slim at best. It besets and clings to people indiscriminately. Perhaps we can take solace in the fact that no one group is at more risk. Technically. I daresay the rich aren’t quite as prone.
The children play in the street, oblivious to their potential futures, to the plight of friends who can no longer come out and play with them. Their song sends shivers down my spine, and I’m not sure why.
Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
The edges of my shawl are threadbare, but I pull them around me to stave off the sudden chill. I’m not sure my mother will still be with us when I get back. And I can’t afford to think of how long it might be before I’m no longer here. I’ll turn into a blubbering mess like Dulcia did. We’re still not sure what got her first – the plague or the madness.
The stench of rot and decay assaults me as soon as I open our door. I gag at the smell, a stark reminder that not only does Death have sounds, but she has odors too. Horrible ones. My mother has passed. I was gone too long.
My heart hurts, I think, or maybe it’s my chest. They say that’s how it can start – a tightening of the chest, a hitch in your breath. Please let it only be my sorrow at her passing. I don’t want to die.
But who does?
I turn, surprised to find tears blurring my vision as I try to figure out who’s calling my name. Though the sunlight is dulled by the clouds, there’s still enough light that only the silhouette is visible at first. Does Death work this quickly? Is she paying me a visit too?
“Edith? Has she passed?” There’s urgency about the voice that only matches one person – Alma.
I nod, suddenly unable to speak around the lump in my throat.
“Let us collect her, love.” Though her words are kind, I can hear the urgency, the need to retrieve the body and burn it. Burn them all.
I nod again and let them pass to retrieve my mother’s husk, their own selves covered as much as possible to avoid contact, to avoid breathing in whatever the dead flesh is secreting. And I wonder when it will stop, or if, in the end, there’ll be piles and piles of us with no one left to burn them.
Days blur into one another, weeks and far too much time, just like those tears blurred my vision. It’s lonely in my house, and as much as I scrub it, I always feel like mother is still there, still about to die and leave that smell. Maybe it’s embedded in my nostrils.
Our town has dwindled to barely a village. The Baker died three days ago, a few weeks after my mother. It’s a shame, I loved his breadrolls.
But this morning feels different, and I’m not sure why at first and go about my obsessive routine. I clean the house, and myself and leave to sit outside on the porch and watch the comings and goings.
Today there is sunshine, the first true blue sky in a long time. It illuminates the mostly empty streets, deserted houses and hopeless faces. As I undertake my routine nail inspection for signs of my own Black Death, I realize the children’s singing has taken on a different tone.
“Edith!” Alma comes running. I’m glad she survived this long too.
“What?” I ask, and even I can hear the despondency in my voice.
I blink up at her, and need to shade my eyes to see her face. The earnestness shines in it, her eyes afire with something I haven’t felt in a long time. “It’s really over?” I whisper.
She nods and pulls me up, close to her in a rare display of affection for both of us. She’s gone as soon as she arrived, probably to take word to everyone else. All of our depleted population.
And still, the sun beats down, improving my mood and I listen to them, truly listen to the song again as I shade my eyes to watch the children spinning in the circle. For the first time I notice they’re dressed the same as they’ve always been. I swear I’ve seen the same children spin and sing for however… long this nightmare has lasted.
Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down
And as they fall to the ground, laughing and giggling at and with each other, I realize what it is they’re making me feel. As if it’s rising up from between them, heralding a new beginning for us all.