We All Fall Down
I am writing because I am afraid, I know of nothing else that I can do – that I can contribute to the atrocities of the current world. There is nothing but stench around me, filling my nose, engraining itself into my clothes, hair, and skin. It has come to a point where this is just the smell of the air any where I find myself. The freshest air is when I can escape the city, which is an incredibly rare occasion.
The noises are worse, starting to fade into the background but still buzzing in my ears. Once, sleeping at night, all I would hear is the wind, or the noise of hooves hitting stones outside on the roads. Now it was hacking of someone trying to release whatever was taking home in their lungs, or the quiet cry of pain. The world was gray in every sense possible: taste, touch, smell, sight, noise. It was all drab and horrid and made my stomach churn every morning I woke to be greeted with it.
The first time I was exposed to it, the Black Death, was with my little sister, Elizabeth. Only eight, wildly like the rest of eight-year-olds, running around getting dirty and stirring up trouble. It started as a simple ailment, her body heated up and she could not be found running around normally. She was found in bed, rolled up into a bed beneath her blankets, looking distraught. Mother treated it like anything else, holding a wet rag across her forward and murmuring prayers to God for speedy recovery.
I did not think much of it, I was trying my best to learn my way around mother’s kitchen, constantly bickering with her over my failures as a cook, always being scolded and told that I would end up alone and not wedded if I could not manage to make a tasty stew. I had quickly learned to cook within the next couple of years as all the people around me became unable to do so themselves. I had quickly taken on the role of a cook, maid, and nurse. I was not quite proficient in all of them.
At some point I had been told to take breakfast to my sister and get her to eat. It had been two days and my mother had only grown more worried and had a vacant look in her eyes most times – as if she knew something I did not. I had lowered myself on to the bed, sitting on the edge with a plate of eggs and bread in hand. Her body was vibrating beneath the blankets, she was shivering. She had opened her eyes only a little, with a small lift of her head. I then felt my stomach drop, a large swollen lump had formed on the side of her neck, nearly purple in color and bulging. I could not look away, but I wanted to, it absolutely horrified me. I had felt tears well up in my eyes and I wanted to scream for my mother. I managed to swallow the scream and push the plate out in front of me, offering it to my sister, “Eat,” I had whispered. I eventually forced myself to shut my eyes, the lump was a gapeseed.
I cannot even remember if I she took the plate or if I had just thrown it on her bedside table and eventually fled. I know I had sat in the drawing room, a hand planted over my mouth. I chose not to speak about it with my mother, she must have already known about the appearance of the purple atrocity. The few more times I saw my sister, there only had been more to develop. My mother would sit by her bed on the floor, a hand wrapped around my sister’s arm as the little eight-year-old girl that once had more energy than any of us combined slowly slipped away.
It was on the seventh day of her sickness that she no longer moved. Blood no longer moved beneath her skin and made a blush in her cheeks. Her skin was pale. It was almost as white as the snow in the winter. I had taken her hand for a moment, ice cold, it no longer felt like her. She was taken, no proper burial, they burned her body. That is what mother told me. People were starting to fall ill everywhere; everyone was starting to panic. Their bodies were plagued with something evil and they had to be rid of and not allowed to have their flesh fester anywhere.
Some days I had to escape the city. People were stumbling in the streets, ill, or crying for help as they held a sick child. The stench had begun soon after my sister had left us. I found my way to a more rural area outside of the center of town. This is where I saw it. A large pit dug into the ground. Lining the bottom of the pit were lifeless bodies. Besides the pit were men dressed in large coats, with beaked masks protruding from it, tossing people’s left-behind vessels into the earth. It was terrifying. I had murmured prayers, closing my eyes.
It was only a few weeks later when one of the beaked men was standing outside of our home, pounding his leather-gloved fist against the door. My mother was the one to answer the door. It was our grandmother then. She was only two days in and seemed close to death. Her eyes were always empty of anything, and sometimes I had wondered by then if she already had been taken by the heavens. Her feet were covered in socks to keep them warm and hide her toes who had started to turn a deep purple – almost black.
I had watched from the doorway, the man had kneeled beside her bed, taking ahold of her leg, and pressing a scalpel against her skin. It was hard to watch as blood dripped from her into a small bucket. I cried, not understanding what was happening, my mother had reassured me this what how to rid the illness from grandmother’s blood. She still was lifeless two days later, looking just as Elizabeth had. This time I did not want to feel her cold skin. This time she was not burned. Mother said she was to be buried. I knew it meant my grandmother would be thrown into the pit amongst many others who had perished.
Food had started to rise in price and lower in quantity. Farmers proved to not be out of reach of the Black Death. I was gut foundered. I found myself losing weight and becoming weaker – sometimes fearing I may be sick myself.
Often the streets were quiet earlier in the morning, I would walk them, seeing more and more of the beaked men. Often, they would be pushing large wheelbarrows covered with a burlap tarp, but it did not take a wild imagination to figure out what was beneath it. The stench of the death wafted out from it. I would see people sitting outside their apartments, nursing a cup of something – tea or ale. Some people had developed into swill-bellies to deal with the bleak outlook of the world around them. I would meet eyes with some people, some around my age, most likely taken over the top hierarchy of their house as their parents and grandparents went to rest in the pit. No pair of eyes that met my own had any brightness. All so dull. I imagine mine reflected this as well.
Some of the nicer areas of the city had gone much quieter, and emptier. Those who could afford it had left the busy city, cramped with sickly people, to live in the more rural areas. It was said you could not become sick there. The air may had been cleaner, the healers more proficient. I had discussed the possibility with my mother, it was just her, my older brother, and me left in our living quarters. My brother, Charlie, was gone most days working on farms, tending to crops. His income had helped, and the country had become desperate for laborers in the fields.
Within two months, our aunt and two cousins were swept away by the Black Death, dying so quickly we had not even known they had fallen ill. My brother spoke in small moments of friends he had not seen in weeks, ones he had made working on farms. No one spoke about their absence, but it seemed that there was an answer for it - my brother would not say either.
I remember realizing that my mother had stopped praying. She no longer sat on her knees every night and morning praying to God for health and prosperity for our world. She no longer murmured her thanks to God before our meals or after my brother returned home safely. I never asked her about it, but I knew she had lost her faith in what was supposed to protect us from such horrors, such evil.
She started to lose any will to get up in the morning, so I found myself making breakfast most days, whatever I knew how to at that point. I cooked for her and my brother before he was off to work. My uncle eventually came to live with us, perhaps too lonely to bear his now empty flat that he claimed still smelled of death. He words came to us as a waterfall of information, explaining our aunt, Henrietta, and her black toes and fingers, and how her swollen, festering black bulbs would leak sometimes. A horrid smell.
He seemed to hold a fear of the beaked medical men, claiming the Devil himself sent them to spread it further, “Nothing will stop this. This is God’s way of striking fear in us. Punishing us for straying from the word of the Lord,” He told me one day with a serious face, his eyes boring into mine.
“I think mother believes this is God abandoning us altogether,” I had responding, the first time I spoke aloud the failure of my mother’s faith in a higher being. My uncle was angry at this, claiming that my mother would be next to go then, she would be punished. I did not know how I felt about that, and I did not tell mother what the had said.
It was not mother who was next in line to be seized by this mysterious murderer, it was indeed my uncle. He took up Elizabeth’s old bed, constantly praying for forgiveness and mercy as his body would spasm and those black welts would appear in his armpits and groin. He said he could not sit comfortably with them in such uncomfortable places. The special doctors were offered to his care, said they could drain his diseased blood, and his black pustules. He refused of course, with no trust in the beak-masked people.
I was stuck with caring for him, feeding him day and night and trying my best to wash those nasty things with a damp towel, shivering in disgust as I did. One morning I was tending to a relatively painful one under his arm, the discomfort was obvious on his face. As I was running warm water over it, the skin containing it seemed to give away and it burst, spurting fluid everywhere. I audibly screamed, tripping backwards as I frantically tried to wipe at any spot I had felt the warm liquid hit me in the splatter. The smell was wretched, and I soon found myself vomiting on the floor purely from disgust.
I immediately had drawn a bath, sitting, and scrubbing my skin until it felt raw. Panic set in, what if this is how sickness is taken into the body? Had my uncle’s pustule of goo just marked me for death next?
Three days later and my uncle was still alive, it seemed even his horrifying abscesses had sized down to some degree. It was only a day later he was sat still as a stone, observing his toes that had gone black, “Just like Henrietta,” I had heard him whisper. He seemed to do nothing but pray, sometimes making the journey to the local church, sitting outside with his hands clasped and head bowed. I had wonder how he even had the energy to do so. Sometimes this made me believe that those prayers were working, gifting him strength to actually heal from the illness. Maybe mother had just not prayed hard enough for Elizabeth, or grandmother.
Four days later and I still had not become ill, I had not started to develop bumps under my skin or chills in the night as I slept. Uncle was still holding up, but the dark bruising beneath his skin had not let up, it only spread further, however, he not yet lost the sparkle in his eyes. He was still fighting, even if he had grown more tired, and less chatty. He still prayed, at least before he fell asleep night, wishing to wake up in the morning.
My mother had yet to come out of her slump, and she never did. She was just as lively as my uncle, yet not yet ill. She rarely spoke to any of us, only to my brother to ask how work was for the day. He expressed that he knew people who were able to move out of the city, and live in the fresh air, he mentioned he wanted this for us, to get out of the rot of the overpopulated towns with overgrown illness. No one said anything. This was only a hopeless desire, which we had no such money to fund.
It was the high heats of the summer that made the streets bustle with more disease and stench than every imaginable. I had to press a handkerchief over my mouth and nose to cancel out the smell of rotting bodies, sewage, and horse dung that swam through the air. At the markets, buying what I could for our dinners, I heard talk amongst others. It was only worsening. All of them knew one or more person in their life who had been struck by the illness. Someone had cursed God, saying they had no help, they were all left behind to die. There was not much fight to such a claim. I wondered if this is how my mother felt as well.
Often, I found myself unable to sleep, sitting in my bed, wondering about it all. What was this? No one seemed to know. Certain people claimed to know, however, they seemed to have no sort of evidence backing any claims they may have had. Occasionally men of science were spoken about, they might know. Many people still living their life strictly to please God spat at the idea of science, scolding others for believing and supporting such evil.
“He is coughing now. A lot.” It was one of the first things my mother had spoken to me that day, getting home with an armful of fresh produce. Her statement was punctuated by violent hacking by my uncle in the other room. I did not respond; I was not sure what to say. I made a hearty stew that night, my uncle had been far too subdued to eat.
Soon the fates had finally taken my uncle and added him to one of the heaping pits. His prayers had died out the day before we witnessed his body giving out. My faith began to waver. He had done nothing but prayer and beg of God to heal him and give him life. If he held enough strength, he read the Bible to us and wept for the mercy of God.
My mother was next to become sick, however, she never developed swollen skin filled with black pus, only a horrible cough that reverberated from the depth of her chest and made her eyes nearly bulge from their sockets. While she had seemed weak even before falling ill, it seemed she refused to be taken away by the illness. I had found her, only a day after we accepted her illness, floating in her own blood in the bath. My knees had grown weak and I had fallen to the ground, my ears ringing. I do not remember if I was screaming or crying, but it was first time I had felt an emotion so strong to bring me out of the eternal emptiness I had been feeling.
She had still been thrown into a crowded grave. It is not the first time someone has taken their own fate into their hands, the man who had wheeled her away said to me. It was not comforting.
I now come to today. The house is empty, I am the only one living here now. My brother found residence elsewhere, still making a living from what I have learned from his sparse letters. I have now been subjected to becoming a prisoner in my own house, ordered to not leave the living quarters. Under my own skin now I feel my own set of pustules forming. A couple beneath my ears, causing a painful pulse against my throat. The developed two on my left thigh on the inside, and I can barely look at them. My body at times felt on fire, and other times I wondered if winter had come as I bundled myself in as many blankets possible.
I would stare at my skin, imagining what was beneath it, swimming through my blood and seeming to hack and slash at every fiber of my body. What could it be? Was it a demon?
Every night I managed to run a hot bath, and sit, hoping it would do something to ease the aches and swollen parts of me that were overrun with the sickness. I was promised that these orders of the sick to stay away from everyone else would be the cure of this curse. It was the answer. However, it was not my own answer, I would die. Everyone else had, why would I be special?
At the end of this all, I had become what mother had, doubtful. No longer holding faith or hope for a higher power to come to my aid. Death was inevitable, and very soon forthcoming for me. Maybe these men of science would figure it out if no one else did.
The business of the roads seemed to increase, people seemed to be spending every last coin left in their pockets to find a home away from the city, leaving every sick person behind to spend their last few wakeful moments smelling the stench of death and feces and watching them leave in carriages with all of their belongings.
The dirt of the streets, of the dead around me was in my body now, conquering me. Something that I could not even see or observe properly was seizing my body and soon would shut down my entire body, perhaps even consume my soul. In end we all fall down.
1600's slang terms https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/500833/30-excellent-terms-17th-century-slang-dictionary