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Rebekah Smythe loo ked down at her brother's lifeless body, his eyes staring vacantly toward the heaven he had hoped and prayed to inhabit. With a pale and trembling hand, she reached down and closed his eyelids.
She had done the same for her father and three of her sisters -- all lying still now in their shallow graves not far from their home; so silent after their days of suffering and anguish. She could not weep for them. Her tears were spent long ago.
She looked at the makeshift cots on which her mother and youngest sister slept fitfully. They had come down with the symptoms just two days earlier. She dared not hold out hope for their survival. In another day or two, if all went as it had for the rest of her family, they'd be gone and she'd be alone. Alone.
By the grace of God, she had resisted the illness. Yet the outcome of her survival would be loneliness. In her darker moments, she wondered how far God's grace could carry her.
Agnes Hull, who lived in the next cottage down, had also survived the Black Plague and claimed that the warm bacon fat she drank was the reason. She left bottles of the wretched liquid at the doors of afflicted families, but unfortunately, it didn't work for Rebekah's family.
John Dicken, who worked in the local mines, was also a survivor. Believing himself immune, he had established himself as Eyam's village grave digger. He would offer his services the instant he heard of another victim. After burying the body away from town, he would return to claim the burial fee -- reportedly taking whatever he fancied. Most were too sick to stop him. Besides, what use was their money if they were dead? Few of the men were well enough to take the job from Dicken, and it wasn't as if anyone new would arrive to challenge him. After all, the village was under strict quarantine.
Rebekah sat on a stool, staring at the fire. Pushing a lock of hair away from her face, she was overcome by a feeling of selfpity. How had it come to this? Who could have foreseen last September that something as unassuming as a box of cloth from London would start such an epidemic? Mr. George Viccars, a traveling tailor, certainly couldn't have. As he opened the box -- wet from a rainstorm -- and laid the cloth out to dry, he could not have imagined what he was unleashing upon them all. Within a day, he developed the telltale symptoms of rose-colored spots on his skin and quickly died.
The Earl, the village's patron, sent his personal physician from the castle to examine the tailor's body. The doctor's diagnosis was Black Plague. It had arrived in Eyam.
And so began a year of terror.
The village had rallied together. Catherine Mompesson, the vicar's wife, bravely visited the sick families. Ignoring the risk to herself and her family, she had brought words of comfort and a bouquet of sweet-smelling posies, believing it would ward off the stench of disease.
As she sipped some ale, Rebekah thought about the rhyme sung by local children:
Ring a-ring o' roses,
A pocketful of posies.
We all fall down.
The rhyme went through her mind again and again --
The knock on the door startled her. Few of the villagers would be out and about at this late hour. Perhaps it was the vicar's wife or the grave digger.
She stood and crossed the room to the door. Her hand was poised above the latch when it occurred to her who might be calling.
Despite the still warm air of the summer night, she felt a chill go down her spine.
He came to the families to aid the sick, comfort the dying, and offer peace to the grieving. The women of the village spoke of him as an angel of light. The men called him a demon, unnerved as they were by the mysterious way in which he appeared and disappeared into thin air. Worse was his appearance. Rebekah had not seen it for herself, but the village gossips claimed that beneath his monk's cowl, he had skin the color of deep water. Blue, they said. The monk's skin was blue. A curse, the men said.
She could not believe that a man of God, one so merciful and compassionate, could be cursed.
She lifted the latch and opened the door.
The Gabon Virus © 2009 Paul McCusker and Walt Larimore, M.D.