Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: BUG (04/06/17)
TITLE: Dark Enigma
By Ann Grover
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I have travelled far, to minister to the people whose tiny farms cling to the walls of the valley. I have been too late, each time greeted by grimaces of rigour accompanied by the rank perfume of putrescence. There’s little to do but pray for the souls of the perished and carve a hollow in the stony soil for their mortal remains.
I toss my crumbs to the birds. They’ve been chittering above me, cheeky things, unmindful of the calamity that has overtaken the country. Small tokens of brightness amidst an unholy darkness.
Svartedauen. The Black Death.
As I round a bend in the steep path, a she-goat meets me, bleating pitifully, her udder swollen. A cottage lies there, its rough door hanging askew. Knocking softly, I enter, holding the edge of my cloak over my nose. It is as it has been elsewhere. Sunken eyes, suppurating pustules, putrid air. On a narrow cot, a baby nestles next to his mother’s shrivelled breast. The woman’s bloodied lips flutter.
I anoint her with oil and pray for her soul, which flies away as I speak. The father and other children are curled on the cold hearth, clutching each other in a final embrace.
There is a shovel in the barn. Afterwards, I whittle a rough cross from mountain ash branches, to mark where the family will rest for eternity. I pray, recounting their names: Moyfrid, beautiful maiden. Stein, rock. Freydis, fair one. Bynjar, armoured warrior. The baby, Håkon, highest son. And so he is.
The goat follows me, and I welcome her company. Perhaps further up the valley there will be someone in need of her burgeoning udder. I can only hope.
As I oft do, I wonder as I walk. How does the disease travel whithersoever it pleases? How does it journey over rivers and mountains, across seas, from splendid manor houses to the humblest hovels of the furthest valleys? From the wise to the foolish? From felons to bishops?
Perhaps this pestilence is spawned in a miasmic womb of foulness, then takes flight, a swarm of beings that alight to pierce tender skin and leathered hide with deathly stingers? Do more of its kind incubate within the festering, noxious boils?
I must be fevered. How can I even consider the existence of invisible fiends which breed and grow, hunt and assault? It is ludicrous to suggest that some kind of devilish hordes, rather than the will of God and man’s own sin, are responsible for disease and death.
It is heresy.
In the late afternoon, I come to another cottage. A small boy crouches in the dust by the doorway.
“Hello, Bjørn!” The boy’s eyes, shadowy caverns in his face, turn to me, but he does not speak.
Inside, his parents, sisters, and brothers are still and stiffened. As before, I commit them to a cradle in the soil. I milk the goat and hold the tin cup to Bjørn’s lips. He swallows once, twice, then coughs, spewing up milk curdled with blood. He dies in my arms. Lord, have mercy on his soul.
This, this, cannot be God’s will.
There is one last cottage at the head of the valley, but it’s too far and dangerous to trek there in the dimming light. I find an untrammelled spot away from the cottage to rest, a place that does not reek of death. The goat grazes, then settles near me.
“Tell me, Nanny, whence does this plague come? My prayers are ineffective, useless against it.” The goat gazes at me with golden eyes, chewing her cud. “So many taken, so many.”
I know of villages which are no more. I heard of a man who buried everyone he knew. He went mad with grief. I, too, feel the madness of despair and hopelessness overtaking my spirit. I scratch the goat’s ears absentmindedly. I feel a seed-like shape beneath my fingers and pick it from her hide. It’s a flea, gorged with blood. I flick it away.
At dawn, we travel on, and as we break through the pines and birches, I see the cottage perched high above.
Smoke spirals from the chimney.
Glory be to God.
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