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Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Plauge Doctor's Face

They were burning bodies again before dawn. Plague doctors with faces like malevolent avian arbiters oversaw the purge with flat black lenses for eyes, hooded cowls rendering their countenances further inhuman, the effect aided by the premorning gloom.

Gilead Lucas watched the smoke billow, revealing and obscuring the ominous black and gray cloaked figures until it seemed almost as though they were a part of the miasma themselves, wraiths born of pestilence infused ash and soot. Death followed them. Days ago they had arrived in Harmon’s Den, searching for signs of illness, speaking to no one but the mayor and then through him organizing examinations in hastily erected tents of ecru canvas; Gilead had avoided his examination, ducking out of line when he noticed that the canvas bore odd dark stains in places mildew would not gather. The reverend said that mistrust gathered in the heart and festered there, but Gilead was one of the few who had not be examined, and he was one of the few who had not taken sick.

Scarves and shawls tied and looped around faces, men from the village delivered the bodies by cart and wheel barrow, dumping them often without ceremony or care into the charnel pit. One of the men collapsed as he went about this woefully necessary chore, his body wracked by coughs and spasms. Black purulence seeped from his nose and was aspirated from his mouth in misted gouts. Instead of rushing to aid him, the others barely seemed to notice beyond a cursory glance, a few seeming to make note of his progression only in so far as to wonder how long before they would have to tip his body into the pit with the others.

Gilead himself saw the swollen black protuberances on either side of the man’s neck, saw how his eyes bulged red with hemorrhages, and knew there was no helping him now.

Someone came and tipped the fallen man’s wheel barrow into the pit.

The plague doctors stood by and watched it all burn.

Gilead slipped away through the forest, uncertain if the unreadable lensed eyes of the plague doctors had seen him, and uncaring. It was time to leave. Time to get his family out of Harmon’s Den and away from this plague before they too fell victim.

The village lay not a quarter hour’s walk from the burning pits, but despite the short time Gilead had been gone, he returned to a place almost unfamiliar; the sounds of terror reached him before sight of the town, the smell of burning set his feet running even as the first shriek registered in his mind. Feet pounding on hard packed earthen roads, Gilead sprinted towards Harmon Den, the quiver on his back rattling with arrows, the bow at his side held half-raised for whatever unseen trouble lay ahead. Just as the first buildings came into view, a figure emerged from the smoke and morning mist.

“Lucas! Stop! For the love of God and your hope of redemption, stop!” Simon Abel grabbed Gilead’s arm, his features becoming clear even as he slowed the other man’s head-long plunge towards the village, pulling Gilead with panicked urgency towards the shrubbery and underbrush to one side of the road.

“Leave off, man! Leave me be!”

“Lucas—Gilead! No! Be still, brother, and listen!” Abel’s tugging turned into frantic yanking as the sound of pounding hooves went from a distant rumble to an imminent thunder. “Get off the road! If you’ve any desire to save Cara and Anne, move.”

It was more a bad step than a decision that allowed Abel to pull Gilead into the bushes, Gilead’s ankle twisting on a half-hidden rock costing him his balance and in turn likely saving his life.

From the prone position Abel forced him into below the brush, Gilead watched as men on sable horses coursed by, blood streaming from their eyes and ears as the hemorrhagic fever tore through their bodies.

“They’ve gone mad,” Abel whispered in his ear as half a dozen of Gilead’s friends and neighbors rode past, each dragging a body behind him.

Not all of them were dead.

“The fever. It’s made them lunatics. They’re looking for someone to blame. Anyone.” Abel moved off of Gilead’s back and faced the other man with horrified eyes. “They’re talking witchcraft, Lucas. They’re…they’ve hung folk. Matty O’Connor.  Purity Belle. Old Mother Higginson. Jeremiah and Emily Burroughs. Lucas…they hung the entirety of the Goodwin family. Even…” he closed his eyes. “Even the babe. Lucas. What sort of people hang an infant?”

Gilead’s stomach twisted with each name Abel mentioned. “Get up,” Gilead growled, getting to his feet.

“But what if they—” a darted glance in the direction taken by the horsemen left no question who he meant “—come back? Perhaps it is best to stay under cover until—”

Gilead was shaking his head. “There’s no time. We must make it back into town before they return.” He put his back to Abel, striding through the undergrowth towards the buildings just visible through the trees. Abel grabbed his shoulder, turning him around.

“Do not be a fool! Didn’t you listen to what I was saying—they’re not just hanging anyone, Lucas! They’re hanging the uninfected. They’re hanging the healthy.

Without preamble Gilead grabbed Simon Abel by his dirt-smudged shirt, the laces tangling in his fist. “And my Cara and my Anne are in there.” He paused, his eyes narrowing. “And what did you mean when you said if I had any hope of…saving them?”

Abel swallowed thickly, his eyes bulging with terror. Gilead shook him, lifting his feet off the ground as the light in his eyes went from dangerous to frightening. Abel’s head twitched from side to side, “Healthy…” he gasped, “your wife and daughter…are part of the healthy…”

Gilead dropped the man, leaving him to lay gasping in the tangle of vine and leaf as he sprinted towards town.

Five steps into his village, Gilead nocked an arrow into the bow and ran with the weapon half-raised. Harmon Den was a chaos of anarchy and despair. The dead and dying littered the street; twice he stepped over what he thought to be a plague corpse only to have his boot grasped by what he had believed to be a skeletal cadaver and to find himself staring down into the sunken eyes of one too far gone to know who or where they were.

The bleeding fever gripped the town, spreading madness. What had been contained by family members, the ill restrained and tended, had become an outbreak.

Slipping between two buildings, Gilead was assaulted by a woman clad only in her shift, blood staining the thin linen undergarment in a path from her chin to her barely concealed navel. She lunged at Gilead, thin white fingers digging into his shoulders as her teeth gnashed at his face and throat. The unexpected weight of her threw him to the ground and it was only a childhood spent wrestling older brothers that let Gilead throw her off. Surprise depleted the manic strength that had allowed the frail woman to knock Gilead from his feet and the sick woman was launched further than he had intended. Just as the woman, staggering, swaying, regained her feet, a man came hurtling out of the smoke mingled miasma of smoke and morning mist and launched himself at her. Black sputum and mucous streamed from his mouth and nose, further besmirching the woman’s stained shift as the man clawed at her stomach with his hands, bit at her face with teeth rendered protrubent by disease receded lips and gums.

Gilead scrambled to his feet, snatching his bow but leaving the arrow he had dropped in his haste.

For a moment he ran blindly, dodging the groups of shouting villagers, barely avoiding a mob as they dragged Goody Abbot from her home, another as they set torch to the church. Gilead plunged into the mist, and at first did not notice how quiet things had become, how distant the dissonance of chaos had grown, until he realized the buildings had receded into vague shapes and he stood in a grassy clearing rendered infinite by the concealing fog.

He had come to the town square.

Moving forward with greater caution, Gilead felt trapped in a surreal nightmare. His footfalls made no sound on the damp grass. Ahead, the great tree in the center of the commons slowly came into view, the veil of mist thinning with every step.

Something seemed odd, the tree misshapen. Something too wrong for Gilead to realize what it was; without guidance from his stunned mind, Gilead’s feet pulled him closer to the massive oak until the wrongness resolved into something his mind could decipher, though he wished with every sickening twist of his belly that it had not.

The ancient oak in the center of Harmon Den, so often decorated with bows of red for the holidays, candles for harvest, ribbons for spring festivals, hung now with the swollen fruit of humanity’s folly.

Bodies dangled from every branch thick enough to bear the weight of a human being.

The shrouds of mist concealed faces too swollen to identify, turned heads covered with sackcloth and burlap into faceless horrors. Gilead’s mind counted the corpses even as he willed his eyes to look elsewhere; six, a dozen, two dozen. Twenty-nine bodies dangled from the great oak’s branches. Bodies in all sizes. Bodies in skirts, dresses, night clothes. Bodies of men. Bodies of women. Bodies of the old…and bodies of the young.

Squeezing his eyes shut against the sight of a tiny body swinging from a rope on the lowest branch, Gilead collapsed to the cold ground and prayed. When he set forth from the town square, it was with a colder heart and a hard eye.

Before reaching his home some little time later, Gilead saw the mayor crawling on all fours, gasping for breath as the swellings on his neck closed his airways. He saw bodies, faceless in the smoke and drifting mists, hanging from the peaks of houses, businesses. Men and women, barely sick, marched with torches, searching out the healthy, distributing “mercy” to the sick with hatchets, kitchen knives, knitting needles, and cudgels.

And around every corner, a plague doctor stood in the shadows, watching, their masks concealing any human expression, the bird-like beaks making them seem monstrous.

If they are doctors, Gilead thought as he rounded the corner to his home, why do they not help. Why when they visit the homes of the sick does no one get well?

Why was there no plague until they came?

A mob stood outside the Lucas home. Brennan Doyle spoke with reasonable tones to Gilead’s sister where she stood with the door barred, speaking and listening through the small window set within. Gilead saw her waver. With a warning cry on his lips, he took a rushing step forward, his hand outstretched to tell her no, no, don’t open the door, but it was too late. The second Leah pulled free the bar from within, Brennan Doyle kicked the door open and he and the mob surged into Gilead’s home.

Gilead ran. Using a trick his mother had never discovered, he bounded between the stone wall of his home and the neighbor’s to leap over the fence in two richocetting steps, running along the edge of the neighbor’s slate roof for a moment before dropping into his own rear garden, tearing up the porch steps and bursting through the back door of his home. Gilead surprised two of the mob as they searched the kitchen for evidence of witchcraft. Eileen Myer was holding up a sprig of rosemary with triumph glittering in her bleeding eyes and Connor Ward was shouting at Gilead’s wife Anne about a jar of eucalyptus ointment—something Gilead knew for a fact had been purchased from Ward’s own wife not two weeks past.

A different sort of fever seized Gilead when he saw Ward, the corners of his mouth stained with black, his eyes weeping blood, screaming at his wife, holding a knife to his throat.

An arrow he was not aware of having seized from the quiver flew from his bow and struck Ward in the throat.

With every arrow loosed from his bow, Gilead saw the bodies hanging from the oak. He saw the woman, her mouth and teeth bloody, flying at him from the mists, and the man who had in turn attacked her, eviscerating her with his bare hands.

But mostly, he saw the flat, shining eyes of the plague doctor’s masks, and the small, small body dangling from the lowest branch of the ancient oak tree in the town square.

When it was over, Gilead stood panting amongst the bodies. A man should not have been able to fire so many arrows, in such close quarters, with such speed, but a man should also not have to see his home destroyed, his town laid low, his friends and neighbors driven mad by a plague they did not deserve.

Anne dropped the knife in her hands. Cara, barely nine years old this autumn, crawled out from beneath the kitchen table, but did not release the hunting knife clutched in her hands. Both raced to Gilead, wrapping their arms around him and clinging to him with fierce love that he returned with double the desperation. His wife and daughter were safe.

From the front of the house, Leah and her husband Isaac emerged, each injured, but otherwise whole.

Supplies were gathered. Anne was an even better shot with the bow than Gilead; he gave her the weapon with little trepidation. Cara clutched the hunting knife; Isaac held his father’s old sword and Leah bore a cudgel. While they gathered food, clothing, and blankets, Gilead climbed the worn stairs of the house that had been his family home for generations, his steps weary but determined as he sought the closet at the end of the hall. He removed neatly folded piles of bed linens and blankets; beneath them lay seam hidden in the floor. Beneath that, a polished box that he removed with a sigh.

Within, the bright gleam of two slender blades caught what little sunlight filtered through mist, smoke, and window. The weapons had belonged to Gilead’s grandfather. Meant to be wielded together, one sword was long and slender, the other short and slightly curved. Gilead pulled them from the velvet casing with a sigh. His mother had called his father and grandfather fools for teaching him to use the blades; Anne’s grandparents had disowned her father for teaching her the bow.

And yet it was those lessons that might well save them now.

Gilead had snuck off into the woods in the predawn hour, ostensibly to hunt game for supper, in reality, to see how extensive the deathtoll in Harmon Den had become. When he returned to the town, the sun had barely begun to light the morning mists. Such little time had passed between his waking and now his second leaving as he and his family slipped cautiously out the back garden gate, that the mists still clung to the hollows, the trees, and clearings, the sun barely lit their way through the forest behind the Lucas home.

Everyone shouldered a pack of precious supplies; food, clothing, blankets, what medicines had not been smashed by the mob. Gilead and Isaac lead them through the trees, circling around Harmon Den towards the south. There was hope the plague had not spread to Piety Fields; or if it had, that escape lay on a ship in the harbor. Along the way, they found other refugees. Men armed with old swords, bows, or what they could use as weapons, women and older children carrying the little ones. A dozen survivors of Harmon Den, those who had not gone to the examinations, those who had not taken ill, followed as Gilead and Isaac lead, and hoped for safety.

No one saw the plague doctor until it rose from the mists of a hollow like the spirit of one dammed.

Gilead’s body reacted without thought, driving the pommel of his sword into the plague doctor’s masked face.

It was like hitting stone.

Gilead moved like water over rock, but the avian-faced thing before him moved like smoke; wherever Gilead struck, the plague doctor was not. He had not a moment to spare for thought, but distraction cost him what little advantage skill might have gained him—other plague doctors had emerged from the mists and advanced on the men armed, poorly as they were. Gilead drove his foot into the plague doctor’s stomach; unlike the unexpected hardness of the masked face, the thing’s chest seemed too soft, it gave in a way that would have disturbed him had Gilead not glanced away to see one of the other bird-masked people remove a black glove to touch Ben Hake on the temple with one finger where the man knelt, exhausted.

Ben trembled. He shook. Seizures wracked his body but he remained upright on his knees. Blood seeped then poured from his eyes and ears, black effluvium coursed from his mouth, spilling over his lips in a flood. When at last he collapsed, his skin was sallow and pale, his limbs shriveled, his face skeletal. Black bulges discolored and distorted the flesh of his neck.

It was as if the entire plague had run its course in a matter of seconds.

A cry went up from the survivors. They tried to scatter. Plague doctors removed gloves and reached for those nearest.

An arrow sang through the mist, striking through the black glass lens of a doctor’s mask. It twitched, gibbering as though suspended by the arrow skewering its head before crumpling to the ground.

Seven more arrows shot through the thinning mist before confusion could even beset those still standing. The remaining plague doctors fell in silence.

Anne stepped forward. Ignored, despite the weapon she carried, she had needed only the opportunity to act. So many underestimated her for being the fairer sex. And she, the savior of them all.

The survivors gathered their things quickly, supported the wounded. Those who had been touched by the plague doctors were left where they lay, relatives weeping with quiet grief.

Anne came to stand beside Gilead, the quiver half empty on her back. She reached to retrieve the arrow sticking out of the plague doctor’s eye but Gilead caught her wrist and shook his head.


“Safe,” Anne sighed. She trembled. Gilead took his hand in hers.

“I want to see,” he said, with a small gesture towards the prone figure. “Were they ever human?” He traced the round line of Anne’s sweet face with his hand. “Look away if you need, my love. Or tend Cara. But I’ll show this demon’s countenance to the light of day before we quit Harmon Den.”

Anne squeezed his hand in hers. She shook her head.

Gilead’s hand hovered over the beaklike nose of the plague doctor’s mask; he hesitated, unable to bring himself to touch it with his bare skin. Anne tore a scrap from the hem of her shift, ripped in the flight from town, and handed it to her husband. Gilead grasped the mask, and pulled it away from the cowled figure’s cloaked countenance.

Anne’s hand grew tighter in his grasp. Gilead’s jaw creaked as he clenched his teeth against a groan.

It had no face.

Beneath the plague doctor’s mask was nothing.



Anne pressed gently on the hand gripping the mask. Gilead let her guide his hand to cover the empty face with the avian façade. He could not see. The world was fogged with scarlet. Gilead blinked as a wave of dizziness blanketed his consciousness. He sat down hard, the forest unsteady around him. Something hot and wet crept down upon his cheek. Wiping a hand beneath his eye, he blinked away the fog long enough to stare at the red fluid staining his finger.

Anne clung to him. Red seeped from her eyes. They sat, flushed with heat, every breath a torment.

And then, it was over.

Anne pressed gently on the hand gripping the mask. Gilead let her guide his hand to cover the empty face with the avian façade. As they wiped the blood from each other’s faces, Gilead could imagine all too well what it had been like in those tents, the ecru canvas stained with black that was not mildew. He could see the townsfolk dutifully lined up outside by the mayor’s decree.  See them going in one by one. And inside, the plague doctors. Waiting.

And unmasking.

“Will we…?”

Gilead dropped the bloodied cloth onto the plague doctor’s limp form and helped his wife to her feet.

“I don’t know,” he whispered. “It’s dead. Perhaps…”

“Perhaps it’s lost its power,” Anne murmured.

They looked into each other’s still red eyes. Tears spilled from Anne’s, tinged pink as they cut clean lines across her cheeks. Linking hands, they stepped into the morning light burning through fog and mist, away from the town, away from their homes...and away from the survivors.

Without glancing back, Gilead and Anne walked in the opposite direction from the others, and vanished into the forest.

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