Monday, October 12, 2009

Escape from Hell

Crows perched like winged demons on the thatched rooftops. Rats scurried through the gutter and hordes of flies swarmed on the filth. It was the summer of 1665, the year of the Black Death, and London Towne reeked with the stink of rotting corpses. Panicked Londoners fled the city like ants from a flooded nest. James Moore, a cobbler by trade, fumbled with the harness as he hitched the shaggy pony to his two-wheel cart.
Lord, forgive me, he prayed. James blamed himself for waiting too long. Now the plague had reached his parish. Every night more bodies were abandoned in the street for the death cart to haul away. It was said that a man might eat a hearty breakfast at dawn, sneeze at noon and be dead before dark.
James heard sobs and glanced over his shoulder. The narrow lane was empty except for his neighbor, a tavern keeper. The man stood over the blackened, swollen body of his wife. He held a club to guard against the crows and the brigands who roamed the streets, stealing from the corpses. Like James, he’d been reluctant to leave his shop.
Now it was too late.
“Lord, have mercy,” James muttered, pulling his tunic up over his nose.
At that moment his Bess Moore appeared at the door, her arms full of linens and bedding. "Come, girls and be quick about it." She led a parade of four golden-haired little girls, each carrying a sack of their belongings.
"Get back,” James shouted and his fear exploded in anger. "What're you thinking, Wife?"
Bess shooed the little ones back inside and returned alone with the bedding. James stowed it on the cart. “Be brave, Bess,” he said, when he saw her tears. She cupped her hand over her nose and hurried back into the shop.
He had loaded a chest of his cobbler's tools and was securing it with a rope when Bess came out of the shop once again. This time she carried the wooden cradle. “There’s not room,” he said, knotting the rope.
“Such a stubborn man I married.” Bess set the cradle down at his feet. “There’s room for your things, not mine?”
“I have need of these tools.”
"I need this cradle too," she said, her arms folded across her chest.
James turned to his wife. "What are you telling me, Bess?"
"Your son will be here before the snow falls." She placed her hand on her stomach. "I felt him kick this morning."
James's face brightened. He loved his daughters, each blessed his heart. He'd given up hope of having a son. "My son?"
Bess grinned. "A boy as stubborn as his father." Then she returned to the shop without another word.
James clawed at the knotted rope, tugging it apart, and set the cradle on top of the load. Thoughts of the baby strengthened his will and flooded his heart with hope.
When he finished securing the load, James glanced at the sky to judge the time. He saw a black cloud billowing above the rooftops. The odor of burning flesh wafted on the breeze. "Wife," he called. "Bring the children now."
Bess and the girls came out of the house. Each held a flower to her nose to cover up the stench. James led the horse; Bess walked beside her husband. The children held hands walking behind their parents. They did not look back.
As they neared the river a strange sight came into view. “Who's that?” Bess asked. She pointed to a group of children, dancing in a circle before a bonfire. Garlic bulbs hung like jewels around their necks.
“The spice trader’s children,” James said. "The man claims garlic will ward off the plague.”
“Will it?” Bess still held the crumpled flower under her nose. “Better than posies?”
He muttered an oath. “I don’t have the money to buy the man’s garlic. He asks a fortune for it.” James saw a familiar cart next to the fire and he quickened his pace. “Turn away, Bess,” he whispered. “Don’t look. Girls, lower your heads. Mind your feet.” He didn’t want them to see the hooded men, dressed in black, throwing corpses into the flames.
As the family trudged past the macabre scene, they heard the spice trader's children sing a merry tune. “Ring a ring o’ roses, a pocketful of posies. Atch chew, Atch chew, we all fall down.”
By nightfall they were outside the city, sleeping in a farmer’s field. James held his wife in his arms. The girls huddled under a quilt nearby. James offered a silent prayer of thanksgiving. With the Lord’s help, James knew all would be well.

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