I lie awake in agony, doing my best to muffle my sobs to keep from waking Marrianne and Joseph, Joseph, my son, I can’t even hold him anymore for fear that if I do he’ll be the next to parish. I ache every day and every night, I can’t eat or drink or sleep, can’t do anything but lay here and wait.”
Tears swim in my eyes as I read the last words my sister ever wrote, she didn’t even have a chance to finish them. I hear my mother crying in the bedroom as she wraps Mary's body in the sheet from her bed and Joseph whining in the crib, the sick moaning on the street and the preaching of the Christians. But all of this is second to the buzzing in my head. This makes the 6th we have lost to the plague. Grandmother was the first, then Jeminiah and daddy and my husband James, then Mary's husband and now Mary had gone to join them.
I close my eyes to hold back the tears then look back to the diary page , trying to remember my sister as she was before the plague. All of my good memories seem to be hiding, pushed away by the horrendous things I have seen in the last few years, dying family members cast aside, people harming themselves for penance for their sins and protection against the plague, humans burned for their religion, blamed for the sufferings of others. As always my thoughts turn towards what haunts me most, the death of my husband not a month earlier. After I lost the baby I started to get better, the plague was leaving me, too late for my unborn child. A month and a half after the plague left me it entered James, he died within a day before I got the chance to tell him I suspected I was carrying again. I place my hands over my still flat stomach, the child inside is the most precious thing in the world to me already and I haven’t even seen it yet. It is my only reminder, other then my memories, of the man I loved.
Tears sting my eyes and I close them tight seeing James’ face in my mind. My mothers cough’s break me out of my reverie, she tries to pretend she is not ill but I know that she is and I fear that the illness will not leave her as it left me. I go into the next room and see her trying to cover her coughs with the edge of the blanket.
Mama has been ill for a while, coughing up blood and having difficulties breathing, but now that the plague has caught her I don’t think she is fast enough to outrun death any longer. She turns to me and her eyes widen in alarm, going from my worried face to the hands still splayed over my stomach. She stands and hurries to my side placing her hands over mine.
“Marrianne what is it, are you hurting again” She asks pushing my hands away and moving her own over my belly gently pushing.
“No mama, I’m fine, just thinking is all, the baby’s alright.” She looks at me worriedly her hand still splayed over my belly before turning back to the bed.
My stomach turns over and I start to feel ill, I run outside before I make a mess in the house and spill the meager contents of my dinner on the sparse grass. It’s not only the baby that’s making me ill, it’s the knowledge of what we must do. There is not enough land to bury each body individually. We must take them out to the street for the wagon. Then their taken and buried in a large pit or burned to get rid of the plague. My stomach turns again and I place my hand over my mouth as I do my best to control the urge to throw up. My mother calls me and I take several large breaths before going inside to help her carry Mary's body to the street.
The wagon is coming down the street as we stumble out the door with Mary hanging between us. The stench of sickness and death hover in the air, the breeze wafting it along and carrying the cries of the people with it. Dawn is always a time of mourning for there are always those who don’t wake up with their families. The wagon is already piled high with bodies, my stomach turns at the sight of the baby laying on top. Mama and I lay Mary carefully at the end of the pile and tuck her sheets around her tight. The man holding the reigns cackles as momma starts crying and leans against me for support. We walk slowly into the house as the wagon starts down the street again.
Placing mama in bed I grab Joseph and take him out of the room. He is fussing quietly and his dark curls are plastered to his head from the heat of the morning. There is little to eat but I feed him as much as I can to quiet the rumblings I hear from his tummy. Holding him close I finally let the tears fall free.
Tears for my family, for my father, my brother, my grandmother, and my husband. For my sister and the man she loved. Tears for my mother who I know won’t be long in leaving, tears for my nephew, the boy who lost his entire family in the six short months he’s been alive, and finally tears for me. Once my mother is gone I’ll be alone, with a baby to take care of and another one on the way. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know how I’ll live. If I stay here the chances of me or Joseph catching the plague are great, but for a woman to travel alone is dangerous, many evils lurk in the world. Not for the first time I curse the fact that I was not born a boy. I will have no choice but to leave once mama has passed but I am terrified to think about what might happen to Joseph and myself.
I can take care of myself, can defend myself if needed. My papa taught me and Mary how to use bows and daggers, to fight, to hunt just as he did with our brother Jeminiah. Living on my own will make these skills very useful especially since I am a woman, but even with the skills I have taking care of myself and two babes might still prove impossible. Dread, despair, helplessness, they all three settle on my shoulders and try to overwhelm me. Pushing them away this time is herder than it was the last but I know that I must. I am the only one left who can take care of baby Joseph, soon I’m going to be all he has left.
I look down at him and he smiles at me before grabbing one of my dark red braids and tugging it, his bright blue eyes sparkle as he giggles and squirms. Those eyes are the only thing he got from his mother. His hair being the pitch black of his Grandfathers and his skin having the tan look of his father. Mary and Josiah used to say that he was the perfect combination of their two families and that now all they needed was a girl with Mary's brown hair, Josiah’s brown eyes and my mothers pale skin and their family would be complete. Mary used to joke that with her luck she’d get a boy with red hair like mine. She was terrified of having a child with my hair, afraid that it might have my temper too.
Joseph snuggles against me and hold him tight before going to the room to grab the make-shift carrier. The strip of cloth is almost as tall as me and many fingers wide and goes over my shoulder and in-between his legs before coming up to wrap around his waist and tying at my back. Momma helps me with it then lays back down. All the while telling me to be careful and to take my dagger with me. I quickly strap it to my thigh and grab my bag before leaving the house.
Outside the wind buffets me, bringing with it the overwhelming stench of death and decay. I cover Josephs head with my hand as I walk quickly into the woods behind my home, picking up acorns and berries on my way. Oak, the large barn owl that I named for the tree I found him in, follows me, hopping from branch to branch as I walk towards the clearing in the middle of the woods that I know so well. When I get there, Chip, the chattering little squirrel that I found 4 months before, runs up to me and climbs my dress, heading for my bag hoping to find something to eat. I grab him before he gets there and place him on my shoulder , heading for the den of tree limbs next to the small pond in the middle of the otherwise empty space. When I get there I kneel down, pulling away the strip of cloth covering the entrance to reveal the small foal inside.
I’ve always had a bad habit of taking in animals that I find hurt, or too young to care for themselves. My poppa used to say that the it’d be the end of me, that I’d take in the wrong animal or take on too much, but that doesn’t stop me. Mamma says I can’t help it.
The foal lifts her head and knickers at me softly before standing on legs that are still a bit shaky.
She is young and trying to get her to eat grass and other solid foods is difficult but I’m having more and more progress each day. I found her one week before, right before Mary got sick, lying on the rocks down by the stream. Her mother had slipped and fallen, catching her leg in a hole and breaking it trying to wrench free. The rainfall over the past two weeks caused the stream to rise, drowning her but sparing her foal who could run to higher ground. But days without food and laying on the damp rocks weakened the baby to the point where she can barely stand on her own.
I sit on the grass and start pulling things from my bag while watching the foal wobble around the clearing, tentatively nibbling on grass. Chip jumps to the ground as I pull the acorns and berries from my bag as well as Josephs blanket and the small wooden wolf that his father made for him when he was born. I lie the blanket down and undo the carrier by pulling the cloth at my back before laying Joseph on the blanket and handing him his toy.
Picking up the berries before Chip devours them as well as the acorns I hold a few out to Oak who flies from his perch and lands on my shoulder before plucking them out of my hand. I hold a few out to the foal who approaches me cautiously and takes them quickly before stepping back, and wash the rest in the pond, placing most of the back into my bag before popping the rest in my mouth and laying beside Joseph.
Oak flies to the nearest tree and starts cleaning his wings as Chip runs up and down the trunk chattering his own special language as he goes. The foal stumbles around the clearing before coming and lying down beside me, leaning against my back.
I look down at Joseph as he chews on his toy. He’s large for his age and carrying him around as well as clothes and food isn’t going to be fun but I have no money for a horse and the foal will have trouble holding up her own weight let alone anything else so I can’t put any of the bags on her. What I’m most afraid of is someone trying to mess with me while I have Joseph tied to me. If I was a boy I wouldn’t have to worry about being confronted as much. I have an idea on how to increase my chances or being left alone but I don’t know how well it will work.
When we were little Mary and myself used to dress up in our brothers clothing with our hair tucked under a cap and go play with the boys from our town. As we got older it became harder for Mary to fool people for her womanly curves were plentiful but mine stayed modest enough that with slight binding I could still pull it off. I’ve been wondering if I could do that when I leave, at least until the baby starts to show. That way I might have the time to find a place for myself and Joseph to stay until after the baby is born before I get too far into my pregnancy.
Joseph smiles at me and pulls on my hair again, taking the hint I pull the ribbon out of the bottom of my braid and let my hair fall free. Dropping his toy Joseph runs his little fingers through it, cooing softly he schooches closer to me wraps one hand in my hair and sticks his free thumb in his mouth.
When I wake the sun is high overhead. Joseph is still snuggled against me, Chip curled above him with his tail hanging over Josephs forehead and the foal is chewing on the grass in the far corner of the clearing.
I carefully untangle Josephs fingers from my hair and walk over to the pond. Sitting down on the edge I look into the water and my face stares back at me. Eyes that are too big, a nose too small, and lips too full. The blue in my green eyes blends in with the color of the water as I lean over to scoop some in my hands for a drink, my hair falling in the pond.
For my plan to work the best method would be for me to cut my hair short, making it easier to hide under a cap, But Mary made me promise a few weeks before she got ill that I’d never cut it. She said it was my best feature and that I should see how long it could get. At the moment it hangs past my rear. Twisting it all into a bun will be a task but I can use one of papas old caps to cover it with.
Sweeping my eyes over the clearing I take in my company. The foals black coat will blend in well with the dark, a good thing since we’ll be traveling mostly at night. Chips white fur will stand out though I might be able to use mud to cover it. As for Oak he can fly above us and will warn us of any danger up ahead.
The plan or what I can do is perfectly formed but still I worry, if something happens, if I get hurt or become sick their’s no one else to take care of Joseph. I worry daily and stay awake at night thinking but I can’t do anything about it. I just hope, for his sake, that I’m enough.
Joseph stirs and sits up, smiling at me before crawling over and pulling himself into my lap. I hug him close before getting up to grab our things.
On the way home Chip runs circles around my feet and Oak flies ahead. When I get to the edge of the forest he lands on the tree closest and gives one final hoot before turning and disappearing back into the forest, Chip following through the branches.