When the Night Belonged to Lissy

Everybody in the family knew what Cousin Lissy could do, but nobody talked about it.

Ma said that’s because there was nothing to talk about, that Lissy was just the same as any other of us kids and we weren’t to treat her any different.

But really, I think nobody talked about it because none of us could really pin it down. It was like trying to describe the sea. You could throw words at it, but the sea would just gobble them up, throw them against the breakers at the feet of the cliffs, and then change itself again.

When Ma weren’t around, my older brother John would say Lissy was touched, slow, on account of her having gotten tangled up on her way to being born, but it wasn’t really true. John just didn’t like trying to learn how to talk to Lissy right — said sign language was slow, and John always wanted to be fast. Fastest runner, fastest tree climber, fastest everything.

There were a lot of us kids running around, dodging between the family houses, spreading out across the connected yards — especially that summer. Lissy and me were the youngest two except for Bobby who barely had his first couple teeth. All the other cousins were bigger and louder. They ordered us around and talked over us and ran around outside on summer night way after the Aunts sent us to bed, so I didn’t really mind hanging out with just Lissy a lot of times — even though she was almost two years younger than me — because at least it was quiet and I got to say what I thought without someone elbowing me around and telling me to shut up.

Lissy actually liked to watch me sign, to hear about my day or the comic book I was reading. She told me it was a lot more fun to listen to someone who listened back

It’s why I was the only one who got to see what she could do.

The Uncles had made a fire in a pit back a little ways in the woods, this blossom of orange against a pitch-dark summer night, but they’d gone back toward the house, to grab more beers, to sit with the wives while us kids ran around in the dark. The other cousins had started a game of Cat-and-Mouse and scattered into the trees where the darkness could hide them. I wanted to go play, too, but Lissy hated Cat-and-Mouse because she couldn’t hear anyone sneaking up on her, so they always scared her halfway to hell. So I sat with her by the fire instead, listening to the shouts and laughter echoing all around us.

Lissy nudged me and signed thanks for staying with me, and I just shrugged because I wished I wasn’t the cousin stuck sitting with her and I hated myself for thinking that. I didn’t want to be a Bobby. I really didn’t.

She nudged me again. You want to see something neat?

I frowned at her, and she smiled just a little, with half her hair covering her face because she never bothered to pull it back. I shrugged again.

Lissy turned her eyes to the fire. She tapped her bare feet against the ground — bum, bum-dum, bum, bum-dum — and she nodded along with the beat she created. Her hands drifted in front of her, her fingers moving like she was signing things but they weren’t any signs I’d seen before and they didn’t mean anything as far as I could see and I thought maybe she might just be playing and that nothing would really happen. Nobody’d ever seen her do anything on purpose before — not even Aunt Beth and Uncle Arnie. It’d only always been accident.

But then the fire flared up high, throwing sparks like new stars, and the smoke curled thicker overhead. And Lissy stared, so I stared too, and I started to see…something. A butterfly made of flames. A circle of fiery faeries dancing. A giant wolf of orange and white, calling to his pack. The fire surged up, and the smoke twisted around, became a head, became wings, became an enormous bird with a comet tail of flames. It swooped down, brushing our heads, and I laughed. Which made Lissy laugh.

“Samuel Benjamin!” Aunt Beth’s voice was still loud enough to give me a jolt, even from all the way on the other side of the yard. “What’s going on over there?”

I tapped Lissy’s arm, and she took her eyes off the fire to look at me. The bird and the wolf, the butterfly and the faeries all disappeared. The flames dropped down into the logs.

“Nothing, Aunt Beth!” I hollered, my hands moving for Lissy so she could see what I was saying. “Just put too much wood on!”

There was a tense moment, and then she yelled, “Well, don’t do that again. You kids singe your eyebrows off, no one’s taking you to the hospital.”

“Okay. We won’t.”

“Fifteen more minutes, and then you and Lissy come back to the houses for bed.”

“Yes, Aunt Beth.”

I breathed a sigh of relief as silence fell again. Just the singing of night bugs and the crackling of logs burning slow. Lissy giggled a little, signed she was sorry she got us in trouble, and I told her don’t be because that was amazing.

She blushed a little.

We stared in the fire, the shouts of our cousins bouncing back and forth around us, and I swear I saw a knight charging through the flames.

We All Fall Down

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,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
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.

“It’s over.”

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,
Ashes! Ashes!
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.