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Windows, long-shuttered, open, the sudden breeze like the world itself breathes a sigh of relief. Outside, in the winter-hardened earthen streets of our village, I can see Hubert Beaumont opening his shop whilst chatting with the brewer. Slowly, I back away from the window, trying to capture that image in my mind—so simple, so peaceful, so like the days before.

Pierre calls from the only other room in the house—the pottage is boiling. He must leave soon for the fields. Now that there are so few workers, the men are going to demand higher wages. Life will get better, Adelaide, he says—if you hurry up and tend our breakfast.

In the past months I have struggled in dim light, as we closed the shutters to avoid the plague; and, now, the bright morning light is almost intolerable indoors. It casts itself in brilliant cascades over our bed and the little cot Isabelle used to share with Louise. The little horse Pierre had whittled for her two summers ago still peeks out from where it was dropped between the cot and the wall. Neither I nor Isabelle have touched it since it fell there when they took Louise away.

Pierre calls again—louder this time and harsher, more impatient. His words are accompanied by the distinct thump of his wooden bowl against that rickety table he always says he’s going to fix—and I wonder if he even knows the horse is still there.

I enter the common room and remove the pot, snagging breakfast out of the cook-fire. Outside the window, I can see Isabelle feeding the hens, scattering their food in a deliberate circle. The hens crowd around her, eager but quiet.

An image in my mind. My daughters frolicking about in the grass, spreading the feed haphazardly while the clucking chickens chase after.

Pierre grunts, and I realize I’ve spilled the pottage. He is complaining again—Hubert’s wife always had her head on her shoulders, not lost in the clouds like yours. Why can’t you be more like she was?

But she succumbed to the plague six months ago.

I bite back the question of whether I might be able to get better working conditions since there are so few women left to compete with. He could be without a wife like Hubert and have to make his breakfast for himself. Besides, he never used to complain about me before.

It used to be: Hubert, your wife cooks wonderfully, but my Adelaide is magical. It used to be: Hubert, come to see what Adelaide has made for the landlord’s wedding, for the doctor’s daughter…

All the while, the girls would be giggling in the corner, Isabelle trying in vain to teach Louise to sew like mama. The firelight from the hearth would dance across their faces, making them like radiant suns and erasing from them the dirt and grime of daily life.

The door slams shut, and I look up from my food and my thoughts just in time to see Pierre tromping down the pathway, his tools in his hands and his old, tattered coat slung over his shoulder.

I watch only until he reaches Hubert, because I know that he will stop there as he always does—to study the clouds and talk about the weather before he ambles off down the lane despite his previous haste to get out the door. I return to the bedroom, my eyes carefully avoiding Isabelle’s cot, and I retrieve the clothes brought me to mend.

The doctor brought his things again yesterday, but I had put them on the bottom of the stack. Pierre always chides me for this, since the doctor pays better than anyone—except the landlord and his lady, of course. Sluggishly, I pull a shirt out from the bottom and take out my needle.

There are stains on the shirt—some blood, some unidentifiable—that not only discolor it but make it stiffen as time goes on, so that some of the cloth is coarse to the touch. As I work, I see the doctor on that horrid night as we watched Louise die. He stands there, helpless—less comfort than the priest, who at least finds kind words to say, even if he has no power to save her.

My hands shake as I try to mend the tear in the fabric.

Is any of this blood Louise’s? I wonder. But even a mother cannot tell her child’s blood from another’s.

 


Kristina Carpenter has an MFA in Creative Writing from Hamline University. When she can get her cat off her keyboard, Kristina writes fiction and poetry, and her work has appeared in Chaotic Merge and Bloom, among others. In her free time (when she has it), she bikes and blogs about dragons.

© 2021, Kristina Carpenter

2 comments on “Plague, by Kristina Carpenter

  1. Plague was an absolutely awful disease which killed a huge amount of people and the statistics are immeasurable. Your story written in such an interesting and unique way and the message of it could awake truly sensitive feelings in me, making me ponder about the idea and the way you packaged it, disclosing significant questions in such a not typical way. It is so difficult for me to read such stories where I am faced with the death of a child because I can’t imagine what can be worse than it, especially for the parents. The end of this story turned all the feelings in me upside down and left a sad reissue because I can’t imagine in what condition the mother of Louise was.

    Like

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