Survival in the Plague Years
by Liz Breazeale
I. Bubonic Plague
We imagine serpents of pestilence thrashing in their flesh, caressing with fang tips. It burns in bodies we no longer touch, fearing their breath, their handprints, will scald us. The hearth fire illuminates our wives’ once proud eyes, our children who used to tug our beards and clasp our dirty thumbs with their whole tiny hands.
We do not know how to make them comfortable, do not know how to tend to them. Their underarms heavy with evil-colored bloats, poisonous fruit. Lips cracked with dried blood. We lean close enough to press a shirt that smells like us, feels like us, to their fingers, then shy away.
We clutch vinegar-dipped rags to our mouths, our noses, and the whole world tastes of bitterness. Our sorrow chased away by guilt. Guilt for the stares at our boarded windows, cracks of light arrowing through. Guilt for our moments of wild panic, when we pitch ourselves against the door, scream for help, help, we are dying.
But the watchmen shout that we are cowards.
We carry our families in our clothes, our lungs, as the alcohol-thick scent of disintegration, terror. Sew their image into our swollen eyelids, the way they grope for us, all blackened sores and gasps.
We already think of them as memories. Choke on the ashes of how they were—our children with skin like fresh-laid eggs, our wives with blown-glass bodies. How they taste now—as dark, empty spaces where we huddle, watching as they perish.
At the harbor we search for our husbands. See only their ship, dipping and arching, anchor chain taut.
The sky froths with storm clouds. Waves slam on the dock.
We ask the doctors, who ebb and flow along the greasy planks: Why do they not come ashore?
Their words ironclad: We cannot allow it.
Our thoughts maelstroms, pitching, yawing. We have not seen our men in years. Imagine them with thick stiff beards, rimed with sea salt, smelling of wind. We have not heard anything of their lives, where they have been, who they have lost, why they were gone at all, and what it is they could not find with us.
We ask why we cannot see them, cannot go aboard.
They wave us off. Say, the disease, it will kill us all. Their spectacles awash with dying light.
Let us go to them, we beg. Perhaps they can be healed.
We receive no reply.
Waves leap. Purple-black clouds loom, a bruise. We see no one abovedecks, no signals, no one shouting. The air thick, a wake, spinning after the blame that cuts through us, the anger.
It must be something they gave themselves, we say, smoothing our hair. Something that hunted them over the waves, over the islands they visited. The women they knew.
We gather along the harbor breakfront, the stone flattened and smoothed by waves. As raindrops pelt us, sea spray sinks into our skin, cracked from washing. Scouring. Cooking. We imagine our husbands curled in their bunks, sinewy bundles waiting for a first cough, first sniff, first stomach turn. We want to tend them, heal them.
We climb the wall. Must cast off our skirts, our shoes, our corsets. Unpin our hair.
Shouts behind us.
Their echoes are waves. Lapping at our empty hulls.
III. Yellow Fever
With nods to one another across the dim tent, we begin the experiment.
Hypothesis, that mosquitoes carry the disease, not miasma.
The subjects ourselves, white men and one woman.
The procedure, to cup infected insects to our slippery-veined arms.
Perfect specimens, all.
We, silent except for breaths. Short and harsh in the humidity.
The mosquitoes dip and swim in their jars. Closer, closer. They land and we think this is it, but the quickening of our own pulses disturbs them.
New cases breed, day by day. Too many to count. Our log books full, time and date and treatment and burial plot. The soldiers we have seen wounded in battles, nurses who swept across the field without fear. All at once, they fall to a disease with no cure. Chill, fever, heaving breath and jaundiced skin. Their eyes with hints of yellow, like the edges of old photographs.
In our bodies, we decided, we can find a cure. It is the only way.
We will not write to our families.
While the dying thrash and sweat and ache, we still ourselves, our breath, our minds. We wait for the prick that will allow us to stop their suffering.
Count the seconds to lower our heartbeats. Count the wingtaps against our skin. Count the time before we, too, will burn.
When the men come, all precision, they do not knock. Tear through our homes with lightning quickness, rip our children from their beds. We, their mothers, do not try to shield their cricked hands, which bend like roots, their weeping-eye sores.
Our voices like leaves brushing against skin, we ask, where do you take them?
We stay back, do not fight. Have wondered in the cavernous dark, since our children took ill, whether we should try and keep them. Whether it is best.
Our husbands strike, eruptions and flame.
We reach for them, as driftwood reaches for shore. Soft. Weak.
When our children weep, call to us in fault line voices, these small versions of ourselves our husbands asked for, we are shocked by the small ways we miss them. Because we wondered, hearing of the colony, if we would all be better off. Now they beat against us in sandfleck moments, moments that leave bite marks along our necks.
Our children are placed in carts, leave us, rattle away somewhere we cannot follow.
We throw open the door, wanting to chase them, throw ourselves into their bodies. But sunlight collects on our skin. The air is fresh, clean. It is different from our homes, with them and without them. Shouts, laughter, scents of bread and lush flowers. Trees hang over us, leaves green and dripping dew. Everything is sweet, tastes of life before our children, before our husbands, before we were tethered to anyone except the earth and its movements. When its upheavals were the only violence we knew. When its quakes were the only faults we felt through our marrow. For a moment, we forget our husbands and their shouts, their pounding against the walls. Forget the disarray of our children.
We forget what we wanted to tell them, until they have faded into distance. Forget that we wanted to tell them the world is emptier now, that they are gone and we are emptier, too.
We ignite funeral pyres, we who are walking corpses ourselves.
Outside the walls, our enemies mass, make themselves known in tents and battering rams and tiny specks of light.
They watch. Wait for the fires to die, for the moment to strike.
Days and days bring no relief. The air ripples with flame. We, sweat draining from our pores, hands tingling with soot and burns, miss the roars of others, of those who yearn to destroy us. We miss enemies who need us, our city, so they can feel like conquerors; we miss enemies whose hatred is a poison we feel in arrows, axes.
They move no closer.
Weeks pass and more of us fall ill. We sleep in the streets. Tend the fires.
The armies march away. They leave their campfires as withered embers, their hopes of conquering in tent pegs and hoofprints.
They look back, meet our wasted eyes.
We watch our foes trickle on, blood from a wound. We thought they would stay, thought they would watch us, attack us, do anything but leave.
We wipe our scorched-hair arms across our faces, only smudge ourselves further. Our bellies rumble, hollow. Our hair long and unkempt, wallowing in sweat and grit. Our homes cobwebbed and dusty with ash, the only thing we have produced in weeks.
We throw down our pikes, our swords, the ones we have used to tend the flames. We cast off our masks of damp cloth that were once uniforms.
We leave the bodies burning. Stumble past the walls, the gates. Chase the ones who would harm us, who pitied us, who left us.
Invade us, we beg, as they shake us off, dust away our cremated handprints.
We ask them to prove we are still wanted, needed. Prove we mean everything. Prove our destruction will matter at all.
They tell us, the priests and other men with demon grins and brimstone eyes, that if we lie with an untouched, pure woman, we will be cured.
We will pray to find them, we say. We will pray.
We find our wives at home, children on their hips or at their breasts. They speak little, ask where we have been. We feel there is a hardness, a bitterness in their words, in their voices, that sharpens, as though we are whetstones. As though we hone them. As though, without us, they will be blunted, dull. They do not say this, but we believe we know.
We watch in muddy streets, swirling with steam after rain, spy girls too young for short dresses, with quicksilver smiles like full chalices and warm tawny eyes. We take their fleshy arms, bid them come with us. When we feel them shiver we pretend their fear is nothing compared to ours, which peppers our vision with flecks of emptiness, vast swathes of our lives where divine light does not reach.
We do not look into their eyes, smeared with tears. Pretend their cries are hallelujahs, that they rejoice in our sanctification.
With our hands carving bruises deep under their skin, our hips wet, we are nothing but fear, nothing but thoughts of how death comes slowly, how death will waste us away.
We thrust and thrust and thrust, recite the gospels of our fears, until we cannot anymore. We wipe ourselves, slick and warm, tell ourselves we are not the same, that we are transformed. And this, at least, is true. We are bodies that should be exhausted but infect, vessels that should be holy but are not.
Liz Breazeale holds an MFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University, where she worked as a staff editor for the Mid-American Review. She lives in Bowling Green, Ohio, and is a content editor for the Blue Monday Review. Her work is forthcoming in The Sycamore Review and Fence, and has appeared in Carolina Quarterly, Booth, Tupelo Quarterly, and others..