Eleanor’s mother, Sibyl, was the first in all of Bristol to show any symptoms. Her return from the marketplace with her husband Isaac had been the beginning of the changes; within 3 days she was bedridden, and soon after she was on the verge of death. The family was too afraid to go near her. They had heard of the horror stories in Crimea – people screaming in the streets, in too much pain to even see clearly. Sibyl’s symptoms were comparable to those stories; she moaned with pain as the bumps rose all over her body, swelling to the size of the eggs that the chickens in the field would lay. Everard, Eleanor’s dear little brother, could not help crying as he watched those disgusting mounds of flesh continuously popping on Sibyl’s skin, leaking pus and blood until it seemed that she could not possibly have any fluid left in her body.
“What is wrong with mother?!” Everard would shriek over and over again, tears streaming down his face, “What is wrong with her? What is wrong with her?” Isaac and Eleanor could never respond. They would simply wrap him in their arms while masking their own terror, praying to God that the crying would stop and the illness would go away. Eleanor could do nothing but stare at her mother while she died; she watched as Isaac swept his tears away while muttering a prayer for Sybil’s soul, running his fingers through her hair one last time.
Sybil’s bedroom had been quarantined after her death. The man with the bird mask who had appeared at the door a few days after had told Eleanor that they could not go near her mother’s corpse.
“God is angry at Sybil,” he had said, “and if you go near her, God will be angry at you too.” Isaac, Eleanor, and Everard had not questioned this. They could not question the man who came to their house and spoke of the will of God. If He so commanded it, so it should be. The man’s black robe and black gloves and the tiny holes where his eyes bulged from his masked face frightened them. From his white mask protruded a long, beak-like structure that looked as though it had been sharpened. Looking at this man was like looking at the Devil himself. He looked like one of the creatures that would appear in Everard’s nighttime terrors. The man also told them about miasma, about how Eleanor’s mother was now surrounded by bad air, which the rest of the family would die from breathing in. The man stuffed his mask with rosemary and sage and bits of dried flowers. This, he said, would keep him safe from that bad air. Eleanor could only imagine the scents wafting together, the sweet herbs interspersed with the bits of rotting flesh and the mixture of blood, pus, and tears on the ground. She shuddered at the thought. The masked man took Sybil away.
Isaac was next. He began talking in his sleep, supposedly to Sybil, but this soon evolved into
a fast-paced conversations with any inanimate object in the house. He would gaze at the supper table while recounting how his day had been; he would murmur Sybil’s name under his breath with his head stuffed into the bed-pillows. Everard brought him stew, the one he liked, made from the potatoes grown out back. Isaac, however, could not eat the meal without it coming back up in a matter of minutes.
“My head hurts,” he told them, “and my body hurts and my heart hurts and just about everything hurts.”
“Eat your stew, father,” they would always respond without fail, “you need to grow stronger. We need you to grow stronger.” The bumps that infected Sybil never appeared on Isaac’s skin, but his vomit soon turned red, leaving the dank, metallic stench of his blood all over the house floors. Knowing that God was angry at him too, he crawled to Sybil’s deathbed and awaited the same fate. He called for Everard and Eleanor one last time, but they could not approach: Everard was frightened of God’s punishment and Eleanor was too cautious of inhaling the miasma. Sybil’s name was on the verge of Isaac’s tongue as he took his last breath. The children watched in horror as Isaac’s chest stopped moving, and his eyes lost their shine. They huddled together on the other side of the house, Eleanor whispering under her breath that everything was going to be alright, everything was going to be just fine, as she held her brother in her arms. She knew that she was in charge now – that she was now responsible for the rest of her and her brother’s lives. Together they wept and wept until their eyes were dry and red, Everard praying for a miracle and Eleanor cursing her God for forcing such a cruel fate upon them. A masked man came by again, a different one this time, and told Everard and Eleanor that he could not take the body. There was too much sickness in the air – one body was not important enough to carry away. So Isaac was left to decompose in the thick wool sheets of the bed.
It was after Isaac’s death that Eleanor and Everard faced a new decision. Sitting Everard down at the supper table, Eleanor gave him their last bit of bread before she began talking.
“My dear brother,” she began, “our mother and father are gone-”
“I know!” Everard responded, tears already welling in his eyes, “do you think that I don’t know?”
“Listen to me,” she gazed into his dull blue eyes, “we are on our own. The air here is not safe. If we want to survive, we will have to leave Mother and Father behind. I need you to pack whatever items you will need. I will pack whatever food we have left – make sure that you have everything you need. We will never be coming back home. We can never come back home.”
“But I don’t want to leave…”
“We must. I am so sorry, Everard. I am so sorry. Please know that we simply must.”
“All right,” he whispered, looking down, “I will be back soon.” Glancing back at Isaac, Everard packed his items, and holding hands, the siblings retreated out through the front door.
Eleanor and Everard winced as the stones and rocks on the ground dug into their bare feet, walking towards what they hoped was a different fate. Eleanor had never been this hungry, exhausted, or hopeless in all fifteen years of her life. Life before the sickness seemed so far away. How pretty the sun had been, and the flowers on the street and the colors of the leaves. The people singing and dancing on the street had filled the world with melodies, surrounding her with an enchanting feeling of pure happiness. They had been a normal family at that point, as normal as families can be. Sybil and Isaac cared for Eleanor and Everard, they bathed them and fed them and helped them with the games they would create out of sticks and mud and rocks. Nothing bad in the world could have touched Eleanor at that point – she had always been happy to help her mother prepare supper and hem her dresses while Everard learned to chop wood. They were a happy family who believed that God was smiling down on them.
The flowers were gone now, the leaves were all brown. Even the sun seemed to be less vivid than before. The dancing people were now twitching on the ground, the happiness and positivity draining out of the world along with their lives. Eleanor wanted to find the necklace her mother had always worn, the one with the tiny cross on it that she had always adored, and snap it into tiny pieces. She wanted the church that they used to attend on the Lord’s Day to burn down in flames. She wanted to find this God and curse Him for what He had done. She had tentatively believed in the faith before, but now she swore herself against it.
Everard grew paler and paler as the days went on. He was always the more emotional one – he could not deny giving a piece of his bread to the woman dying on the street or touching the hand of the man lying in his torn rags on the ground. Eleanor would always warn him about the bad air.
“If you get too close to those people,” she would say, “then you will join Mother and Father.”
“Mother and Father are in a better place,” he would scream back, “I don’t care if I get the disease!”
“Did you not hear what the masked man said?”
“I heard what he said. And I want it! I want the disease! Can’t you see that God gave Mother and Father the illness because He loves them? The masked man was wrong; He does not hate us. We are just going to join Him sooner than we thought. Let me get the disease. Then I can be with Mother and Father again.” Eleanor stood, dumbfounded, in front of her little brother. What was she supposed to say to that? Eleanor knew that his faith blinded him from reality. Inevitably, Everard went down the same road as Sybil and Isaac. The next weeks were torturous for Eleanor – shock filled every inch of her body as her little brother embraced the disease, embraced death. Finally, Everard got what he wanted. Eleanor took a minute to examine his body, little and sweet, with wisps of blond hair falling over his closed eyes before she turned away. Running away had been the wrong choice, she realized. She needed to go back home.
The door of the house creaked as she approached it; the vines on the walls made the handle almost impossible to find. She shuddered as she entered, the cold air creeping down her spine, chilling her down to the bone. She knew she had the illness. It could not have been avoided. She had taken every precaution to avoid the miasma: she had left Everard at the moment of his death, she had not gone near any of the infected, she had collected the few flowers still growing on the trodden grass-path and kept them near her nose. She had done everything she knew to do, but it hadn’t even mattered. Maybe God was mad at her, she thought. Maybe this was His punishment.
The room was completely silent. Eleanor was completely alone. Holding her breath as she walked, the crackling of the pebbles under her feet was the only noise she could hear. The uncontrollable feeling of dread washed over her; the memories and pain returned to her in full force. This was the house where she had watched her dear younger brother come to life. This was the house where her father had put her on his lap while he sang to her. This was the house where her mother prepared daily supper – the savory aroma of potatoes making Eleanor’s mouth water. This room was where they always prepared their Sunday clothes, heading off to that vile church every morning. Eleanor grimaced at the thought now – how much time had they wasted in that ‘House of God’? That house of lies? Everything was different now, everything had changed. Eleanor knew that the moment she looked up from the floor she would be met with the sight she had been dreading since she decided to return.
Her father’s rotting corpse watching her from the sheets of the bed was her only company. His eyes seemed to follow her around the small house, one almost perfectly intact and the other in the middle of decaying, surrounded by flies and maggots and worms. Eleanor could not take it anymore. The eyes followed her, and the stench of decaying flesh and rotting vomit was driving her mad. Knowing that she was infected, she dragged the corpse outside, gently laying Isaac on the grass outside of their front door. Hesitating for a minute, Eleanor grabbed the spade standing by the wall and began to dig. The process was slow; she was not strong anymore. She dug quietly, the spade hitting the wet soil was the only sound she could hear. The digging continued, she dug and dug and dug until she could not take it anymore and then she set the spade down. Stepping back, Eleanor gazed into the chasm in the ground, dragging Isaac’s arm until he was lying somewhat naturally in it. Singing a quiet prayer, just for Isaac, she covered his grave with soil.
The skin on her face felt dry, as if there was something growing on it. The bumps on her legs made her nauseous, so she had covered them as soon as they first appeared. She had done nothing but stare as her right arm slowly turned crisp and black over the weeks, from the tip of her middle finger to the middle of her forearm. She knew what was coming. Taking a shaky breath, she picked up the spade and began digging again, watching the world rise above her as she sank into the ground.
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