Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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The Black Death

by Jeani Rector


Prologue:

The flea was hungry.

Its flattened body, similar in shape to a sunfish, made for easy maneuvering through the hair shafts. Because its large hind legs were adapted for jumping, the flea could travel quickly, with the ability to leap seven inches vertically and thirteen inches horizontally. It had a row of spines that could catch the hair with a backward pull, so it would not be easily dislodged if its host attempted to scratch it off.

With its rows of sharp mandibles, the flea bit into the flesh of its victim, but the flea's bite went unnoticed until salivary secretions caused an itching sensation in the rat. Even though it had just punctured the skin of the unfortunate host to extract its meal of blood, the flea was still hungry.

This flea was infected with Yersinia pestis, a bacterium that, in the quantities multiplying within its system, created a blockage in its throat.

When the flea attempted to feed, the meal could not pass below the blockage. Instead, the flea regurgitated the blood back into the rat because it was unable to swallow.

The rat only received its own blood back after more Yersinia pestis was added from the flea's system. The flea would eventually starve to death. The host received the regurgitated blood containing the bacterium, and would inevitably die of the disease the bacterium caused.

The flea and the rat were the original vectors in an event of horrific magnitude, because the bubonic plague had arrived in medieval England.

December 1348

It was her first time in a big city.

Actually, it was her first time in any city, large or small. Elissa's family were wealthy landowners who ruled over peasants and serfs. But Elissa had run away from the only life she had ever known to see what she could discover in the great big world.

Fresh from just leaving the country, Elissa found London to be almost overwhelming, and the city bombarded all of her senses with excessive stimulation. Everything appeared to loom larger than life. There were more people in the few square miles of the city than she had ever imagined could be living in the entire world. It seemed as though everyone in the crowded city rushed around in a hurry.

She had come to the city for the opportunity she felt it could offer. Elissa had begun her clothes-making apprenticeship under Thomas Taylor just a month ago, when he had taken her into his household. He was an aging man with a stooped posture, and his arthritic hands no longer held the needle securely as they once did, which was why he needed an apprentice who had nimble fingers.

She liked Thomas, and appreciated his kindness. She was beginning to settle into a daily routine of opening the shop for customers and taking measurements of their sizes. She would retreat into the little room behind the main sales shop and choose between hundreds of spools of thread and dozens of rolls of colorful cloth as she would begin to create sturdy garments, stitching with great care.

But then she felt that life was beginning to unravel, just as her garments would if they were not sewn properly.

The sickness that she had heard in so many whispers had arrived in London.

The tell-tale signs began subtly. A few less customers in the store, a few more rumors.

Then the pace began to quicken.

Elissa noticed that people began wearing handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths, and they filled their pockets with sweet-smelling herbs. They refused to shake hands, and avoided touching one another in any manner. Every so often, someone would stand in the streets and loudly read Bible verses to the passers-by, not caring if anyone listened.

But the worst was the man with the push-cart that traveled the streets of London once a week.

"Bring out your dead!"

The cry would reverberate through the streets, and Elissa cringed when she heard it.

She never looked out the garment-shop window to see the man with the push-cart, and so her imagination ran rampant. In her imagination, the man pushing the wagon was an evil monster, drooling over how many dead people he could gather, and clenching his yellowed, sharpened teeth in glee over the lifeless bodies piled in his cart.

Whether or not her mental picture of the push-cart man was accurate, Elissa was determined not to discover. On the day of the collection, Elissa would hide in terror behind the sales counter until the wagonload of dead bodies passed. She never peeked.

And so the days continued, some good, some not so good. Her awareness of the pestilence made her feel increasingly fretful.

Every morning Elissa awoke, feeling under her armpits for any signs of the pestilence on her own body. And every morning, she would stiffen with fear until she was sure there were no bumps. She couldn't take a breath until she was positive she was spared the surety of death for one more day.

January 1349

The world falling seemed to be falling apart before her very eyes.

God appeared to be unleashing a terrible vengeance upon all of the people. Was this the end of mankind that Revelations had so chillingly foretold?

And now, in the January of a new year, in the home of Thomas Taylor, Elissa sat in a bedside chair watching her teacher die.

She knew there was nothing she could do for him except to keep him company and to try to soothe his fears. She also knew that her apprenticeship contract in no way obligated her to see her teacher through to his death, but morally she felt she should.

And besides, she had nowhere else to go at the moment.

Dawn lightened the room, and she wiped Thomas' forehead with a damp cloth. He burned with heat, and moaned for water. When Elissa tried to help him drink from a glass, Thomas couldn't seem to make his swollen tongue function, and the water dribbled uselessly down his chin.

Dark blotches were beginning to form on his cheeks, and periodically his body jerked in spasms as his nervous system went awry. He sighed and lay back against his pillow, and Elissa resumed wiping his brow with the cloth.

She sat back on her chair and her thoughts wandered. How trivial her old life's everyday problems appeared now, compared to all of this.

She remembered the joy she had experienced in her life. She wished she had foreseen how fleeting joy could be. If she had, she certainly would have made the most of it while any joy she had felt was happening. How for granted she had taken her life! She regretted her restraint. How unnecessarily she had followed the rules that society dictated so closely, rarely questioning their purpose.

And those rules--most of the old rules in life seemed to be meaningless now, including the distinction between the social classes. It had been so important to her father that she be reminded that servants should be kept in their place. Her father had always told her that she was so much better than peasants due to her upper-class lineage. Now she only had to glance around the city to be aware that the pestilence was not particular as to social status. In the Great Dying, everyone was considered an equal opportunity for which death could stake its claim.

So many thoughts ran through her mind as the sun continued to fill the room with light.

How odd it was that the sun would continue to shine daily, but all things made of flesh might cease. And if all the people in the world were to die, the sun would rise and set upon an empty landscape. Houses would fall and fields would be reclaimed by wilderness.

Would anything be of any consequence if the only life forms that could comprehend the meaning of life were no longer around to contemplate it? Or was that an arrogant position, to take the stance that nothing was important in the world if humans were not part of it?

Elissa thought of her own mortality. She had recently turned seventeen; her birthday passing without celebration. Would she not see eighteen? Were her days numbered? Was she ready to face death, to discover what, if anything, lay beyond?

She realized that once she was faced with the possibility of no choice, she seemed to become resigned to fate. A week ago, she would have been terrified to think that death could be courting her. But now, it was strange to discover that she was actually getting used to the idea that she could die at any time.

How much more could the mind get used to when exposed to abhorrent circumstances?

Suddenly she heard a commotion coming from the street below. It distracted her out of her musings.

Another group of flagellants was approaching.

Elissa went to the second-story window in the room and peered to the street below. She could see the band of about fifty people coming in an odd procession from around the corner.

Elissa knew that flagellants were penitents. They were fanatics who took it upon themselves to give penance for the sins of the rest of the world. They had the hopes that by doing this, God would provide forgiveness and spare His children from the Great Dying.

Their actions were abhorrent to watch; yet Elissa could not seem to pull herself away from the window. The penitents repeatedly thrashed and flogged themselves or others within their group, all the time singing mournful religious songs. Women ran besides the men and caught any spilled blood in their hands, then rubbed the blood over their faces. Some of the flagellants would strip to the waist in order for the beatings to take place directly upon naked flesh. They seemed unmindful of the severe chill of winter, and only replaced their coats during breaks in the floggings.

This group of flagellants had cat-o-nine-tails knotted with nails on the end. Blood flowed freely as they flogged themselves and each other. They beat themselves and exposed their flesh to the elements in extreme demonstrations of martyrdom. They beseeched bystanders to join them in their martyrdom, telling London's citizens that giving penance was mankind's only hope of salvation.

Elissa could not stop herself from staring at the window. She was mesmerized by the hysteria happening below. Each flagellant appeared to be trying to outdo the others in his or her degree of suffering.

Elissa wondered, Why do perfectly healthy people choose to make themselves sick, when there are so many who have no choice but to be sick and wished to be well?

She was glad when the flagellants rounded the corner and disappeared from her view. Soon they also disappeared from her hearing. Sighing, Elissa went back to her deathwatch of Thomas Taylor.

He was beginning to smell very bad. All of the toxins from deep within his body seemed to be rising to the surface. Boils and pustules oozed foulness and his high temperature was a catalyst to project the smells into the room. Elissa couldn't stand the stench any longer; she went back to the window and opened it to let the outside air enter the room.

She couldn't stop herself from thinking. Thoughts raced through her brain unchecked and unwanted. Now she contemplated the open window. All her life she had been told that during times of sickness, windows should be locked tightly. The reasoning behind this was that sick people were more susceptible to bad air, and besides, everyone knew that invisible evil devils traveled unnoticed through the air.

But now when Elissa took deep breaths of the outside air, it seemed to make her feel better, not worse. Certainly the outside air seemed to ease the nausea she felt when she breathed Thomas' foul stench. Should everything she had been told about open windows be discarded? What was fact and what was fiction?

Elissa knew that if she ever survived the Great Dying, she would change the way she lived her life. She evaluated the superstitions of her old life with the things she had been learning from her new life. Elissa decided that she would dismiss everything she had been told and start over. What was it that one of her friends had told her once? That friend had said she needed to think for herself.

Sitting in her chair, Elissa suddenly looked at Thomas. He was sitting up, his mouth gaping, the skin melting off his bones right before her very eyes. A bony arm covered in boils and black blotches stretched out as he pointed directly at her.

"You're next," he croaked, "you're next!"

Crying out, Elissa woke with a start.

She realized she must have dozed off right there in her chair. Her heart raced in her chest, pounding against her ribs. She was afraid to look at Thomas, even knowing it was only a dream that he had risen from his pillow. She had to force herself to look at him.

And when she finally looked, she saw that Thomas was dead. The large, dark buboes that had strained the skin underneath his armpits had burst.

"Oh!" Elissa cried and ran from the room. She lay upon her own small bed in a corner of the main room and sobbed. She was exhausted and depressed. She needed to remove the sorrow from her system so that she could then try to think about what she should do next.

She slept for a while. Her body demanded rest, and she gave in. Dreams of her home in the country were so vivid that she felt she could smell the green meadows and hear the birds sing. When she awoke, she thought, Why did I leave?

And then she realized, It's because I didn't know any better. There were so many things I didn't know. I had no idea the great turns fate could take. If I survive the Great Dying, I will make sure some good comes out if this. And when I can travel, I'm going home.

Elissa felt better. From the angle of the sun, she estimated she had been sleeping for about two hours. She figured it was around noon.

She had to bring out her dead. Had she missed the man with the wagon?

Come to think of it, she didn't remember hearing the cries from the street of Bring out your dead! for a couple of weeks now.

Elissa tried to think. When was the last time she had heard the gruesome call of the man who removed the dead bodies from the streets of London?

She couldn't leave London until Thomas Taylor was buried.

She knew she couldn't simply leave him lying in his bed to rot. Even though she no longer believed that God caused the pestilence, she still believed in God. Therefore, she needed to find a priest to bless Thomas and to ensure that he held passage to Heaven.

That meant, if the man with the push-cart was not going to come to her, she must venture out into the streets to go to him. She would find him and summon him back to this house. Otherwise . . . well, she wouldn't think like that.

She grabbed a woolen cloak and went outside into the street. It was dirtier than ever. The men who were paid by the city to weekly rake up the muck from the streets had obviously been absent for a long while. She looked up and down the street. Chickens roamed freely and here and there, a few children also roamed. But other than those few children, the street was strangely deserted.

Which way to go? Elissa went north, choosing the direction at random. She walked a few steps, when out of a dark doorstep, a bedraggled boy of about ten or eleven years old came forth.

"Would you have a six pence?" the child asked.

"Where're your parents?" Elissa dug in her satchel for a coin.

"Dead," the child said. "All of my family are dead. It's the Jews, you know."

Elissa was startled. "What?" She thought she hadn't heard him correctly.

"The Jews!" the boy cried. "The Jews poisoned the wells! That's why everyone is dying!"

Elissa was horrified. Was everyone losing his or her mind?

She understood how impotent people must feel at the randomness of events, and perhaps that could make them have a need to place blame upon something tangible.

She knew from stories that historically, people of the Jewish faith had been the scapegoats of many natural disasters. But how often had the Jews really been responsible for the tragedies of the world? Once, twice, never? Elissa shook her head. Rubbish. It was all rubbish.

She felt a need to set this child straight. "Listen," she told him, "people are dying everywhere, not just in London. How could it be possible for the Jews to poison every well at every place in England? Think about it! It is not possible."

"No! No!" the boy protested loudly. "It is because of the Jews for sure! They murdered Christ. And now they are murdering everyone who obeys Christ."

Disgusted, Elissa threw a coin at the child, then went on her way. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the boy scrabbling upon the ground to retrieve the fallen coin.

Continuing her walk down the street, she came across an elderly woman, all draped in shawls. The woman was making her way slowly, hunched and shuffling.

"Have you seen the wagon that carries off the dead?" Elissa asked her.

"Gone. There are no more carts to carry off the dead," the woman said. "Probably the one who pushed the cart is dead himself."

"But there is a dead man in the house where I'm staying," Elissa said, "and he needs to be taken care of."

The old woman shook her head. "Even if the cart-pusher were still taking corpses, where would your dead man be buried? There are no graveyards left that are not already overflowing with bodies. I hear the dead are even being thrown into the Thames. And priests! Well, I haven't seen one in weeks. The churches are empty, save for the sick who are praying for their own salvation, because there are no priests to do it for them."

The old woman hesitated, and then said kindly, "Go home. You cannot find help for your dead man. Go home and worry about yourself."

Elissa was stunned. She tended to believe this old woman. It felt like the truth. There would be no one to help her.

Elissa went back to the house of her dead teacher. She climbed the stairs over the garment shop and went into the main room. She sat on her little bed in the corner and did some more thinking.

Who would bury Thomas Taylor?

The answer was obvious.

She would.

Now would be the time to utilize the sewing skills she had learned. She went to a cabinet and retrieved a fresh sheet and sewed it into a shroud.

She took a wash basin and filled it with water. She mustered up her courage and entered Thomas's bedroom. Gently she washed him with a sponge. His eyes were half closed, and the irises seemed to peek out from beneath the lids. It was as though he was watching her efforts, as if he was thinking, Be kind to me.

Sadly she sponged the blood and the pus off of his face and his neck. She didn't cry. She felt empty of tears. It was too late for tears and she just didn't have any more. She cleaned him off the best she could, then covered him with her makeshift shroud.

When she was done, the sun was setting. She went back to her bed and fell into an exhausted sleep, and did not dream.

The next morning, the sky was overcast, dark and foreboding. How appropriate that the weather would reflect the mood of the city.

Elissa went back into the street.

She wandered for awhile, searching for an abandoned cart. Finding one, she pushed it back to Thomas' house and left it at the doorstep of the garment store on the first floor. Going back up the stairs, Elissa realized that it would be difficult to maneuver his body down the stairs. Perhaps she could drag him with the help of gravity.

Grunting and straining with her efforts, Elissa dragged Thomas down the stairs. At the bottom, she rested for a minute. Sweat streamed down her temples and stung her eyes. But then she took a deep breath and continued to drag poor Thomas across the garment shop and to the door.

Once at the doorstep, she realized the enormous difficulty she would encounter by attempting to lift Thomas into the cart. After a few tries, she decided that she just couldn't do it alone.

She began walking back down the street, searching for someone to help lift her dead teacher into the cart. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a movement, and turned around to face the same ten-year-old bedraggled boy that she had chanced upon the day before.

"Would you have a six pence?" the child asked, not recognizing her.

"I'll give you a whole shilling if you'll help me," Elissa tempted him.

His eyes widened. Then he became suspicious. "What would I have to do?"

"I need to lift a dead man into a cart," Elissa said. "You can have a whole shilling for only a minute's work if you'll help me."

"It's the Jews, you know," the boy said.

"Listen," Elissa strained to hold her temper in check. "I don't want to hear about any Jews poisoning any wells. I just want my teacher lifted into a cart. Do you want the shilling or not?"

"Sure, I'll lift your dead man," the boy said, "but let me see the shilling first."

She showed it to him, and he followed her to where poor Thomas still laid in the doorway, covered in his makeshift shroud. Together they pushed and pulled, and eventually the body of poor Thomas lay in the cart. Elissa gave the boy the coin and he ran off.

She pushed the cart towards the nearest church. In the church courtyard, she saw it was just as the old woman had told her, that the graveyard was full. She saw mass graves that still had not been covered with earth, and which laid open to reveal multitudes of bodies inside, piled all the way to the top of the holes.

Pulling Thomas off the cart, she dragged him to an open grave. She pushed him into the hole, and his body fell stiffly on top of countless other victims.

Mournfully she said a prayer, not knowing if God could hear her.

"I'm sorry it has to end like this, Thomas," she told him. "This is the best I can do for you. I'm so very, very sorry. I hope you find peace."

February 1349

It rained for days.

Elissa found herself spending the days in her bed, sleeping too much in her attempts to block out the daily tragedies that went on right outside her window. When she wasn't sleeping, she roamed the apartment; traveling in tight circles as she wandered throughout the tiny tenement.

Eventually she ran out of food, and she knew she'd have to venture back out into the street to search for more.

The next day the rain stopped. Hungry, Elissa decided that now would be the time to go back out to the street.

Were there any shops open? Elissa doubted it. She didn't know where she could locate more food, but all that mattered was that she did. She took a deep breath as she once again grabbed her woolen cloak.

She went out the door of the garment shop. Had it really only been three days since she had taken Thomas for his last journey through this doorway? It seemed like a lifetime ago.

Elissa realized that it was already February. Perhaps the new month would prove to be more benevolent than the last.

In any case, Elissa knew that her task on this first day of February would be to locate a food source.

She walked down the street, hoping she would not run into the young, bedraggled boy that had held such malevolence against the Jews. She peered into the windows of the shops as she walked. Some were boarded up, but others were simply empty and abandoned. Where was everybody? Surely not everyone had died or left London--had they?

But it seemed as though nearly all had. The people she saw were mostly the very young and the very old. She came across an elderly man who sat in the open doorway of a fish store. He was pale and gaunt, with a large nose and very crooked teeth.

"May I buy some fish?" Elissa asked him.

"None fresh," the man said.

"How about salted," Elissa's stomach growled, "or dried?"

The old man scrutinized her, then smiled, revealing his awful teeth. "It'll be expensive."

Elissa thanked God that she still had money left. "I have enough."

"Come in then," the old man said, "my name is Edmund, and I'm the fishmonger on this block. At least I used to be, when there were people around to buy my fish. And who might you be?"

She told him her name, and he said, "All right, Elissa. You can have three fish for a pound."

"A pound!" Elissa exclaimed. "That's usury!"

"Take it or leave it. And if you take it, don't ask for more. I can't sell you any more than three fish or else I'll starve myself." The man went to his counter and retrieved three small and shriveled dried fish.

She was too hungry to argue, and the man knew it. "I'll take it."

She took the fish that he wrapped in paper. She left his store, but went only another block before hunger overcame her. She ducked into a dark and deserted doorway and opened the paper wrapping. The fish were hard and chewy, but Elissa wolfed all three of them down, one right after the other.

It was cold, so very cold. Elissa could see her own breath. She pulled her woolen cloak tighter around herself, and was thankful that her shoes had very thick soles. She tried to walk near the buildings, because the centers of the streets were thick with mud.

She approached another shop that had an open door. The lighting inside was very dim, but the store didn't appear deserted, as did most others. She poked her head inside the doorway, and cried, "Hello? Is anybody here?"

There was no answer. She tentatively stepped inside, looking around.

Food! Here was food. It was a butcher shop. She could tell because a lamb was tied in the corner and chickens roamed freely throughout the store.

"Hello?" she called again.

Elissa stepped over to the counter, then gasped. On the floor behind the counter was a man lying in a pool of blood. Only this man had not died of the pestilence. This man had a large knife protruding from his chest.

"Oh!" Elissa cried, and fled back out into the street. Once there, she gulped great breaths of air, trying to calm her stomach, which threatened to give up the three fish inside.

Then she composed herself. After all, why should observing death by murder be any more frightening than witnessing death by disease?

So she went back into the butcher shop, taking great care not to look at the dead proprietor sprawled on the floor behind the counter. She rummaged around, in search of prepared meat. There was none to be found. Obviously the person who had murdered the man behind the counter had the same idea about finding meat.

But then she pulled out a drawer and was rewarded for her diligence by finding strips of mutton jerky inside. Elissa sighed in relief. There were enough of the hard, dried meat strips to last for a few days if she were careful. Elissa began stuffing her pockets with the jerky.

All in all, it had been a successful day, because she had accomplished what she set out to do. She thanked God that she had survived another day. But now it was time to make plans to leave London.

Back at Thomas' tenament, Elissa went back to her little bed and drifted off to sleep.

Suddenly she was awakened by a crash! It seemed to have come from the garment shop on the floor below.

Elissa sat up, frozen in fright. The noise sounded as though something had been knocked over onto the floor.

There was someone in the garment shop!

Elissa realized that it must be very late, because the room was enveloped in darkness. She cursed the fact that she had not lit a candle before she went to bed. Straining to listen for any sound, Elissa held her breath as she sat on her bed.

More sounds were not long in coming. She could hear somebody rummaging through the store below. Objects were flung on the floor and against the walls.

Whoever was raiding the store did not seem to care if he or she was to be discovered in the act. But why should the person care? Law enforcement would not come to the rescue.

And then she wondered, Will the intruder be satisfied with the store, or will he or she come upstairs?

Elissa didn't know, and couldn't take the chance that the intruder would simply go away. It was flight or fight, and since she couldn't jump out the second story window, her only option was to fight.

Elissa threw the covers off, and jumped out of bed. She ran to the kitchen and grabbed the biggest knife she could find. Unmindful of the fact that she was shaking, Elissa stood perched just inside the doorway, which led into the main room from the stairs. There she listened and waited.

There! Another sound, closer now. As she had feared, the intruder was coming up the stairs. She could hear the steps groan under the weight of the intruder. First a step, then another. The intruder was approaching slowly and meticulously.

Elissa raised the knife to head-level, aiming it, and holding it with both hands. She wanted to make her first thrust a good one. She did not want to learn the intruder's identity beforehand. She would kill first, then discover who it was later.

For weeks, Elissa had struggled to survive. She sometimes acted on instinct instead of with thought. Her instinct was telling her now that whoever this intruder was, he or she was dangerous, and Elissa had to either kill or be killed.

The intruder was close. Now!

Elissa shoved the knife downwards, catching the intruder just as he put his head through the doorway. The knife went into the man's upper chest, and Elissa kept pushing with all her strength, until the knife was imbedded all the way up to its handle. He screamed in surprise, then made a gurgling sound, then dropped straight down into a heap on the floor.

The intruder continued to lie on the floor without movement. Elissa watched and waited for a while, then became convinced that the intruder must be dead. She stood over him, panting from her exertion.

Then Elissa went into the kitchen to retrieve a candle. She lit the candle and brought it to where the intruder lay. She crouched and held the candle up to the man so she could see him.

The intruder appeared to be a man of medium height. He was scruffy, with uncombed black hair. He was dressed in mismatched clothing. She touched him with her toe to turn his face so that she could look at him.

His face was covered with dark blotches. He had the sickness.

Elissa turned away in horror. She knew the disease was still rampant in the city. Here was more proof that it was time to leave London. Elissa decided then and there that she would leave for Wynham Castle the first thing in the morning.

She kicked the man as hard as she could. His body fell back down the stairs, loudly tumbling, unstopping, as dead weight was prone to do, until it reached the bottom of the stairwell. Elissa shut the door, and went back to bed. She lay there, but sleep was long in coming.

She thought back to when she was a child, and her father had killed a man in her defense. At the time, she hadn't understood. She thought they had performed a criminal act that was sure to summon God's wrath.

But now she was living at the basic level of human existence; on the rudimentary edge of primal impulses. Her desire to survive was surprisingly great. Elissa had not known before that her will to live could possibly be this strong. She was surprised to find out that she still wanted to live very much indeed. Elissa had thought that she was resigned to whatever fate had in store for her, even if it meant death. But now she knew that as long as she still had a choice, she would always choose to live.

She had not gone hunting for a person to kill. The person had come hunting for her. Here was another area where the old rules didn't apply: it was no sin to kill in self-defense.

Finally she drifted off to sleep, even though she had been sure she wouldn't. Morning came quickly, and her resolve to leave on this very day was even stronger in the sunlight.

She opened the door to the stairwell. Reluctantly she made her way down the steps. The intruder was still at the bottom of the stairs, lying there with his head at an unnatural angle.

Elissa took a deep breath, and then simply stepped over him.

As she passed through the garment store, she saw it was a mess. Clothes and sewing items were strewn every which way. No matter--no one would complain about the lack of order.

She went out the door and into the street for the final time. Elissa walked to the community stable to saddle up her horse.

Elissa was going to go back to the country, hoping that the Black Death would be less rampant there. She was going home.

And when she finally reached the country, Elissa realized that she had forgotten how wonderful home really was. The beauty of the English countryside astonished her. How could she have left this extraordinary place? The meadows were brown and soggy from the ending winter, but the open spaces revitalized her.

The cheerful early Forsythia was in bloom with yellow brilliance, and the crabapples were showing signs of rejuvenation as buds swelled upon the branches. The scent of a promised spring was in the air, and Elissa breathed deeply.

She made her way to a church and stepped inside. Nobody was inside.

Elissa felt that the chapel's emptiness made the largeness of the room seem omnipotent. In the unoccupied space, sounds echoed.

Ornate religious symbols decorated the walls, and the chancel was spread with a colorful cloth complete with gilded edgings. She sat on a stone pew and rested her head in her hands, elbows on her thighs.

She tried to find some sort of perspective on the events happening around her. She searched her memory for any psalms or parables that preached strength, but her mind came up blank. She looked into her soul to find her faith.

She felt that God did not cause the illnesses. The sickness took both the good and the bad, and also those who were in-between. Elissa searched for her faith, and then began to evaluate it.

She felt that God was perfect, but was His creation? The soul was simply carried in a vase that was the body, and like a vase, the body could be broken. It was said that man was created in His image, but was merely appearing like God enough?

While God has no earthly substance, the human body contains flesh that ages, flesh that can be punctured with wounds, and flesh that can be invaded by illness. God was not punishing the people; it was simply that the vessel carrying the soul was fragile.

Would she be able to maintain one's faith through the fear and the abhorrence, through the shock and the horror, and every other inconsolable emotion one experienced from living among the constant illness and death?

Elissa decided that she could maintain her faith. Doing so came through an acceptance of death as a natural consequence of living. To try to see the world on a grand scale meant to view the human population as a collective, and not as individual elements.

It was like the stars in the sky, none were less beautiful because there were so many, but together the stars made for a brighter light.

She contemplated that having faith meant having trust, and having trust lessened her stress. It gave her a sense that, in a world that seemed out of order, someone or something was still in control. That in itself was a comfort.

So that is the design of faith, Elissa mused. It could keep a person sane when the world around him or her was insane.

No sane person could possibly think that the world was only good or bad in degrees of moderation. A sane person could see that the world went along its own path with its own directions and sometimes the good or the bad could be extreme. A sane person had to accept what he or she could not change.

And Elissa felt that acceptance was the key. What else could she think? She had to give up the presumption that she could change the events happening around her in the world.

She could not stop the Black Death; that was an event of such a horrific magnitude that it was out of her reach.

Instead, she had to break down the event into little bits and pieces to see what her part was in the whole.

Elissa got off her knees, and looked at the chancel. She felt restored, and had a renewed purpose. In a crazy, sad world where there wasn't a lot to be thankful for, she would learn to be thankful for little things. Keeping her sanity was certainly something for which to be thankful. It was a start.

Little bits and pieces, Elissa thought, the quilt of life is made from little bits and pieces sewn together.

Elissa decided that she believed the human race would somehow survive, just not all of its members. It could be compared to how the plants died back to the ground in the winter, only to return again with new growth in the spring.

Mankind was not dying, only taking a winter rest. Mankind would return in the spring.

And so Elissa left the church, walking into the sunshine on a day that held the promise of the upcoming spring; a time when the earth would become rejuvenated, and a season when all would seem so new and fresh.

Spring was the season of hope.

THE END

For more of Elissa Hastings's story, see "We All Fall Down", a novel, now available from Amazon.com.


© 2008 Jeani Rector

Bio: Jeani Rector grew up reading Stephen King novels. Halloween is her favorite holiday. Her two children sing "The Rector Family" to the tune of The Addams Family. It is all in good fun and actually, most people who know Jeani personally are of the opinion that she is a very normal person. She just writes abnormal stories. Doesn't everybody? For more about Jeani Rector, check out Open Grave - The Book of Horror. This is Ms. Rector's third Aphelion short story entry; her shaggy person story, A Case of Lycanthropy, appeared in the September 2007 issue.

E-mail: Jeani Rector

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