|The Twelth Night Cake ©|
There was grown-up talk into the night. Everyone was talking about the sickness. Grandfather and Uncle Harold exchanged stories of a former plague that swept through London Towne years ago and many God-fearing people died. They said every so many years it strucke again, usually when we had a warm winter and little rain in the spring. Between too little rain and the bugs, crops everywhere, were nearly ruined this year according to Uncle Harold. Grandfather said the Death came with a current of wind like a cloud carried on a secret mission. My sister Betsy was crying and Mama scolded Grandfather, rightfully so, for being so gruesome in front of the children. Of course, I was older, it only scared me a little. I had already heard my school friends talking. They said it would sweepe through the slums like wild fire on account of all the filth there. It was supposed to pass over us.
Grandfather said the stars were lined up just as they were when the horrible Death visited the last time. Mama tried to shush him again. She said, "We're not superstitious people—we knowe better."
Mama kept Betsy and I in off the streete mostly. There were three red crosses on our streete, one on my friend James' house. Uncle Harold said they had the "Death" over there. Grandfather questioned Betsy and I about the last time we were at their house. Mama's face looked old. Often she cried herself to sleep. She prayed to God every night and every morning she thanked Him for protecting us from Death's breath. She told Grandfather that God would waite no longer. God forbid, He would strike downe the sinners just like in the wilderness journey.
I went to sleep every night to the creaking of the wagons going past. Like a funeral procession only the dirge was the wailing and moaning of the dying. Solemn faces, numbed as from an unreal nightmare pull the wagons onward toward the camps set up outside the city walls. Some say the dead knowe their own way—as each helps to bury his own dead, he learns the way well...
Uncle Harold brought home plague-water from the chymist which we drank morning and night. He always had a pipe of tobacco in his mouth much to Mama's disgust. She said it won't get him passage to hell, it just smelled like he'd already been there. We watched for the Death cloud and stayed indoors mostly for our own protection. When we had to go out, we tooke pomanders smelling of rosemary and lavender to breathe and wore protective clothing to cover ourselves completely.
Mama put garlick and ginger in everything she cooked and she salted everything heavily. Even Betsy was allowed a cup of elderberry wine with dinner. After the first fewe days she didn't want to drink her wine. She said it tasted bad—like vinegar. Mama said it was the smell of vinegar from the boiling pot that was bothering her. At night there was a huge fire set not much distance from our house to cleanse the air of poison. Mama let us wear as much perfume as we cared to, to ward off the poison. Betsy wore the musk, personally I liked the sweet smell of roses. She told us not to get short-breathed. We were to take care not to over-exert, "Moisture on our skin attracts the poison," she said.
Just before Christmas, Death's grip lessened. The terrible old woman with her scythe was seen sleaking away defeated and even after all the terrible loss of loved ones, the whole community felt a sense of relief. Once againe we could go out and mix freely with our friends. Now, we wore heavy coats for our protection from the cold, but it was still a jubilant time. We exchanged gifts and had a festive dinner. Betsy had her warm figgy pudding that she loved so much. We sat around the fire and talked of happier times, with an expectation of such times still ahead. A few days later, Mama baked a twelfth Night cake—that was my favorite. I savored every bite and saved some in a handkerchief for morning. With the approach of spring, however, our hopes were dashed.
The nightmare returned. "The Judgement is here," Mama insisted. "The day of God's wrath. The publique players are going to bring us all to extinction."
"O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo,"chided Uncle Harold.
"I'll boote you clear into next week, if the Lord doesn't do it first," returned Mama.
It was so hott and the whole air smell'd bad. Mama kept us away from the front windows now, but the smell alone told us many many people were dead. The heat weakened us to the point that often we thought we were coming downe with the Death. This sweltering season seemed so long that it wore away at our reason and sanity. The bells toll'd constantly through the summer and we could hear the wagons carrying the dead and dying sneaking through the night againe and the day as well. Then the wind reared its ugly head. Some said it was an East wind....a bad omen. Something bad always came from an East wind. I wondered how anything could ever be worse—but it was. The whole world caught fire.
Grandfather said he heard it started near Thames-streete—the King's baker was careless. He left his bavins too close to the stove. There was even talk about a prophesy that London was going to burn to the ground.
The dark night came alive with shadows and odors from the dancing flames, made even more eerie by the reflection on the water. Soone the whole sky and scape was ablaze. Five dayes it raged. Pale ashen faces stood staring, in helpless resignation. We left our house with only the clothes we were wearing. The way was slow—there were the death wagons sitting still, en route, without a driver. Everyone left alive was trying to leave ahead of the flames. It was impossible to tell if those down and crying in the streets were caught by the Death or had been trodd'n under, trying to outrun the flames. There were cries all around. People were saying it was the end of the world.
It would be weeks before a fresh breath of air would offer any relief. There was the most horrible sound, the roar of many oceans all at the same time. When the way over London Bridge was blocked, people began crossing the river in hundreds of small boats. Many of the small boats overturned, spilling their occupants into the dark waters. A greate irony.....brave souls who survived the Death were drowning, trying to escape the fire and no one noticed.
We stayed in the country with James' older brother John and his family for nearly a month before we could return. Most of the town was nothing but ashes..tinged with red from the sun and a terrible terrible foul smell...still. The walled city lay naked and ashamed.
A lot of my friends from school are gone now, but Mama and Grandfather, and Betsy and I, somehow were spared. Mama said Uncle Harold was too mean to die. I will miss James the most. As the fire died away, smoldering here and there for weeks, so also, the unfeeling monster, the Black Death, was sucked into its own hideous grave among the ruins. My innocent years are over now.
Sheryl Hamilton Chaney