It is in the middle of the night that Ned sneezes.
“Bless you,” I tell him in a quiet tone, a shiver of fear running down my spine, spreading through me, and immobilizing my heart.
“Bless me.” he returns sardonically. “Why would you bother?”
“Because,” I tell him, a note of angst creeping into my voice, “I love you.”
A rat scurries over my feet, and the room carries the burden of a grave silence within seconds. I glance out of the window, and can see the flea ridden pesthouse in the distance. Behind me, I know, is the morgue. I silently hope that I will never have to go there.
A silent tear falls down my cheek—I bury my face in my sleeve as I give a muffled sob.
A week later, I am at the dusty corner of London, where it is filthier than even a loo. There are many hastily dug graves, with no proper headstone. In one of these, I know Ned lies, if not in peace.
I dared not go into the pesthouse, for fear of the plague. I dared not go anywhere. But then again, it’s a matter of chance, of sheer luck. If you get pinned down by an unlucky finger, then even if you try as hard as you can—there‘s little chance that you’ll emerge alive. It’s like fighting to pull yourself back onto a cliff when you’re clinging on to the edge of it—once your resolve to get back on there is gone, so are you.
And Ned never really fought back. So he never really was there.
Or at least, that’s what I like to think.
Months later, I have come to force myself to work at the pesthouse. My daily duties consist of carrying supplies to the true doctors and comforting patients; in truth, I am an instrument myself.
Today, I attend to a child who can be no more than seven years old. Her cheeks are wasted—abominable pustules cover her entire body. Her golden hair is black with dust—a single strand peeks through, a single ray of sun in a night sky.
Though I am in truth, disgusted by the entire ordeal, I risk decreasing the distance between me and the child.
“Hi,” I whisper, more out of fear than out of care.
The child looks up at me with frightened eyes and a hollow glance, the glance of one hungry for attention, of one forgotten and neglected. She is one in many, a single fly among a swarm of her kind. Her voice is a hoarse croak, reminiscent of that of a frog’s.
“Gail,” she says, her throat crackling, the embers in a raging fire, and I have to lean yet closer in order to hear her. A shiver runs down my spine, a commonplace incident for me.
“Abigail, actually,” she croaks, straining her throat to speak. “But they call me Gail.”
“Are your parents here too?” I ask this on an impulse, and immediately know it is a mistake.
But she shakes her head blandly, a monotone. “They’re dead,” she says. “My sister and brother are too. My sister was only two.” Tears fill her eyes, and somewhere in my heart, a string snaps in sympathy and realization. “My dad never saw her. He died before she was born. My mom—” She trails off, shaking her head.
And she does not have to finish the sentence; it is tragic enough. I do not know her pains, but I have glimpsed them—and winced—I have lost a son in this whirlwind of evil. The thread of which her tale is spun is one too frayed—I fear it will break any second.
I retire to my apartment tonight with no heart for even what little rations are available to me. I realize that there is no point in fearing the plague; chances are, I will get it sooner or later. Perhaps, this should happen to be my last moment—I must live it to my fullest. Otherwise, it won’t truly be a moment, a moment that will be spun into a thread of memory.
Or perhaps, my last moment was years ago. Perhaps, I never really had a moment. Perhaps, I will die with no memories to cherish.
I return to the pesthouse the next day—Gail’s bed is a magnet to me, a north pole against my south. She lies seemingly limp on her bed, yet a fire, a deep desire to survive breathes within her, burns in her soul.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I ask her.
She looks back at me, her eyes imploring.
“What if I never grow up?” she demands fiercely. “How can you be so sure of that?”
My soul cries to make her healthy, to wipe the ugly and angry pustules that spring vivaciously from her body-- I look away so that tears do not come to my eyes.
“What if you do?” I plead. “What if you survive this?” For a split second, I know in my heart she will.
“Well,” she begins weakly, “I want to be a player, because they can be anybody they want to. But I’ll have to disguise myself as a boy and everything, though. That’s what I want to do if Shakespeare’s still there.”She pauses, her breath increasingly shallow. “If I’m still there.”
My heart stops for a second, like the dam that stops her ambition in her soul.
The next day, I hurry back to the pesthouse. But I am not truly hurrying to the pesthouse—I am hurrying to Abigail.
However, when I arrive, Doctor Cluveau asks me to bring him a set of tools in order to allow him to examine his patients. When I ask him if Abigail is among those that he is examining, he shakes his head.
That’s when I understand. He has given up on her—to him, she is a lost cause, part of the casualty ward. But she hasn’t given up on herself . Even in despair, she fashions hope.
I shove the box of instruments in to his detestable hands, and run from the impending misery-- the misery of the past, the misery of the now. Somehow, I do not accept the harsh reality.
There is a day that I ask Gail what she loves to do, what her passion is.
“Oh,” she returns, “I love to embroider. Someday,” she says, looking to the heavens, “I want to embroider a whole tapestry. It’ll be my own world.”
I smile, glad to see this new wave of happiness emanating from her. “I love embroidery too,” I tell her encouragingly. “It’s what I did the most before I came here.”
Her face falls, a single drop of rain from the sky, with no tree to receive it. “See,” she whispers, “if you asked me what I did the most, it’d be sitting here on this bed and wondering if I’ll live through tomorrow. Sometimes, I feel like that’s my greatest accomplishment.” She pauses—it is a bitter and acrid moment. “Living.” she muses, exploring her own statement. “My greatest accomplishment.”
There is also a day when I ask her what her favorite memory is.
She grins, and I see the unworn child in her, the child that she is meant to be. For a moment, I am able to ignore her swollen lymph nodes, her pustules, her hoarse tone, her coughs—they are transparent.
“Talking to you.” she says earnestly. “I have all those other memories playing with my brothers and sisters, but they’re tinted with sadness. You talk to me as if it were a normal day, I mean, as if I weren’t sick and everything. It makes me forget where I am.”
And I understand what she means. I am filled with a pride of having given her this happiness, this joy. But suddenly, I am faced with the thought that it isn’t a normal day.
Maybe, I think, this is my first moment.
Day by day, Abigail fades from me. But I reconsider this—perhaps it is her feeble form that places me under this terrible illusion. The ember in her soul is as alive as ever.
Yet, I am brought face to face with reality once more. On Thursday, she can no longer sit up. On Sunday, she can no longer speak. On Wednesday, she and I seem to be the only people aware of her existence—yet when I look into her blazing eyes, I know she is determined to make a name for herself, to survive, to become the player at the Globe that she always wanted to be. And I hope with all my heart that one day, she will.
On August the twenty-seventh, sixteen sixty-six, she fades from the world altogether. But she has not faded from this universe altogether—somewhere in the sky, I know she is laughing, running in a grassy field with her parents and siblings, complete at last. On this mid-summer night, she is my dream.
I seek her body out from the many lifeless forms in the pesthouse. At the same dusty corner of London where I once buried my son, I bury her with my own hands, the thought of getting the plague myself far from me. For I know that she did not live in vain. She fought against what no person, adult nor old man, dared fight against. Her will to stay alive still burned within her—she was there. She still is there—she lives on in my heart.
And that is what matters.