It was August 1348. I was coming home from working in Mr Barbel's fields, and then I heard it. Winston, the town's carpenter, had just come back from Hightown. A group of people surrounded him, listening intently to the words he was speaking. What was all the fuss about? I crept closer and listened to what he was saying. His moustached mouth moved quickly in a rush to get the words out.
"...just come back from doin' the cathedral an' all. Mad ol' woman comes up to me, blabbering summink 'bout this plague. Apparently it's really terrible an' all." What was this terrible plague thing? I had never heard this word before. I leaned closer, wanting to hear more. He carried on talking. "The woman came t' warn me. Told me never to return to Hightown. According to her, people are dying of this thing passed through the air. She said that first you get these bubbles under your skin, buboes I think. Then you get really hot and start sickin' up and you get these odd purple spot-blotch thingys on your skin. Tha' old woman said I'd better watch out, 'cause then you start rolling on the floor and twitchin', then those buboes things sometimes pop and this black oil comes out. She sounded really serious, then after that this creepy cart passed us wiv' all these bodies on it. And the scariest thing was that all those bodies had those buboes and purple blotches. I'm warning you now, be careful or you'll die."
Wow. I knew that Winston was always telling stories, but this was out of the question. I meandered back home, thinking carefully about what the carpenter had said. Was this plague coming to Moosk? Were we all going to be hit by it, then all die? I felt fear beginning to swell up inside me and I couldn't stop myself running the rest of the journey home, anxious to see if my beloved family were alright. As I came to the ragged wooden door, I heard the sound of my little son Peter whimpering. I flung the door open to see what was going on, then stopped in my tracks. He had a horrible lump the size of an egg growing underneath his arm. Esther, my wife, was comforting him, stroking his cheek gently and touching the lump lightly whilst watching it with anxious eyes. Oh my goodness, I thought to myself. Could this be this terrible plague thing? I strode with long legs over to my whimpering son and worried wife.
"What's wrong?" I asked, although I could see for myself. "When did this start?" I glanced quickly at the disgusting lump under my son's arm, then looked away. Esther just motioned with her head towards the door of the house, and I understood immediately. She wanted to talk to me away from Peter. I stood up and patted Peter's shoulder reassuringly. I was about to say something else, but Esther shushed me. It was only then that I noticed my little angelic daughter, Mary, curled up on a large pile of straw. She looked so peaceful, so unaware of the world around her. Bless. My mind came back to Earth and I realized what I was meant to be doing. I went to the door, opened it, and waited for Esther to join me. She muttered something soothing to Peter before slowly getting up and gliding towards the door smoothly. She came out through the door and I closed it behind us. She stared at me worriedly, and my own brow creased with anxiety at her expression.
"What is it, John?" she whispered in a silvery voice. "It just turned up today, this lump under his arm. Eliza's got one too, and her husband came into the fields today to warn us. He said half of Moosk already has it, and now it's spreading to our side. Do you know anything?" I nodded solemnly, too stiff to speak as I remembered the words Winston had spoken not an hour ago. He had said that the people in Hightown were dying of this thing. Eventually I forced the words out.
"When I was coming back from the fields, I saw Winston. He was telling everyone about something like this which is up in Hightown. He said that first you get these things called buboes, they look just like the things Peter has. Then you start vomiting, then you get purple patches on your skin, then you fall on the floor twitching, then... then..." I couldn't say it. The words came out in a croak: "Then you die."
Esther's face grew white with horror as I felt the blood drain from my own face. We both loved our little Peter with all our hearts, we couldn't stand to see him with a life-threatening illness. Would he die? We wouldn't be able to live with ourselves if we let him die. I stared down at my feet, not wanting to look into my wife's distant eyes. This was terrible. After a while of thinking, Esther gave a little nudge which landed me harshly back in Moosk.
"What should we do?" she asked tentatively, trying not to upset me. I thought I was having a panic attack. I felt like I couldn't breathe, my knees were shaking and I felt very hot and sweaty. Esther's hand squeezed mine as she waited for my reply. I took a few deep breaths then spoke.
"I'll go to see Dr Harcourt first thing tomorrow, he's bound to have a cure."
"Well, you know him," Esther replied, "That man has a cure for anything." There was the faintest trace of a smile on her lips; maybe our little Peter will live after all.
The next day was my day off, so I went on my way to the marketplace. There were so many stalls out, some selling clothes, some selling food and some selling medicines. Of course, because I had lived in Moosk for all of my life, I knew which stalls were actually good and which stalls weren't worth your money. I walked straight past them all, heading for the one man whose cures were the best in Moosk: Dr Harcourt. I arrived at his brightly decorated stall in record time. He greeted me with a smile.
"Can I help you today, John? What's the problem? I have a cure for just about everything here." I stared at him seriously before saying:
"Peter has this egg-sized lump under his arm, and I think it might be the plague. Do you have any cures, doctor? Please, I'm begging you." The doctor stared at his stall thoughtfully before suddenly reaching underneath the table and retrieving a large book. He flicked through the yellowing pages until he came across one titled 'THE PLAGUE'. He read it carefully for a long minute before turning to me. My heart fluttered. Would he have a cure? Finally he spoke.
"Well, the book says that you should soften the lump with a mixture of figs, cooked onions, yeast and butter, then you should cut the lump open with a knife. This will release all of the bad blood and bacteria and so your child will have a good chance of surviving. To help him get an even better chance, you could let a dove drink his blood and make him drink his own urine twice a day, just to make sure. I warn you though, this plague is contagious, or so it says. If I were you, I would keep happy and not think about it. Go home, go to some parties, have a drink or two and dance. If you don't think about it, it won't invade your body." That was a huge relief. Dr Harcourt had given me a cure and a way to increase Peter's chance of surviving. Exactly what I needed. I smiled graciously.
"Thank you Dr Harcourt," I babbled gratefully. "I know Peter will live in your hands."
"No problem." He replied, smiling too. "Always happy to help an old friend." We had both been friends since we were five.
I purchased a dove, the special mixture to put on Peter's buboe and a little flask. I started walking away from Dr Harcourt, walking towards my house, when I suddenly thought of something. I stopped and jogged back to the doctor's stall, hoping he didn't have another customer. He didn't.
"By the way, doctor," I said. "Do you know what exactly causes this plague?"
"It's thinking about it," He replied. "If you don't think about it, it won't invade your body. You should enjoy yourself, it attacks people who are unhappy. This is aided by the alignment of Saturn and Mars, as they are making the air bad. The bad air goes into your mind and then makes you think bad thoughts. Always take a bit of lavender with you wherever you go and just enjoy yourself."
"Thank you doctor." I breathed. That amazing man. He always had a reason to go with his cure, and it was logical.
"If you breathe in the scent of the lavender, it will obstruct the bad air. There, problem solved!" I thanked the doctor again before starting my journey back through the marketplace. As I came through the clothing section, I heard someone shouting something that sounded important. He was a messenger. I listened, desperate to find out what the news was.
"Hear ye, hear ye! There is a plague coming! Hear ye, hear ye! God is punishing the sinners of the world with this devastating illness! Go to church, confess your sins! Throw away your alcohol and gambling gear! Hear ye, hear ye!"
So he was talking about the plague now. It seemed that the whole of Moosk was being smothered with news about it. I contiuned my journey back home, staggering slightly under the weight of the dove in it's cage and the bag containing the special mixture and the flask. I thought carefully about what Dr Harcourt had said had caused the plague: 'thinking about it' and 'the alignment of Saturn and Mars'. And then that messenger, he had said that 'God is punishing the sinners of the world.' Winston had said that it was 'passed through the air'. But which one was right? Or were they all linked together? Could God have deliberately moved the planets to create bad air which we inhaled to give us the plague? Or had the plague just appeared in thin air out of nowhere?
I stumbled through the door of my house, still pondering, and laid the goods down on the floor. Peter and Mary came to greet me and then gasped and squealed excitedly at the sight of the dove. Esther emerged from a pile of clothes that she was darning. She smiled at me magically.
"Come now, children." She spoke as if she had no cares in the world, as if her life was perfect. "Leave the pretty dove alone. Your father needs to move." Mary and Peter said goodbye to the dove before skipping outside to play in the hills. They seemed so happy. All of the previous day's worry, about discovering Peter's lump, had just evapourated.
Esther glided slowly towards me and asked in a silvery voice:
"Did Dr Harcourt have a cure?"
"Yes," Was my reply."He said to soften the lump with a special mixture he gave me, then to cut it open with a knife to release the bad blood and the bacteria. Then he said that if we wanted Peter to have a bigger chance of surviving, we should let the dove drink the blood and he should drink his erm... urine twice a day. It won't be pleasant, but at least it will cure him." I sighed, out of breath from explaining. I had been afraid to stop, for fear that I should forget the vital information given to me by Dr Harcourt.
"That's good." Esther sighed, relief flooding into her face. "Did the doctor say what caused it?"
"Yes, he said that it was because Peter was unhappy and that the alignment of Saturn and Mars creates bad air. It's funny, because on my way back home, I saw a messenger and he said that the plague was caused by God, but Winston said that it was caused by bad air! Honestly, it's all so confusing. I don't know who to believe." My brain was officially scrambled by all these different casues and ideas; I didn't know which one was the truth.
"Well, I'm staying with Dr Harcourt. I think the planets are causing the plague and the air that we breathe." Esther remarked. "I've noticed that the air around here is getting quite bad."
"Mmm." I replied. "Well, whatever it is, we have to give Peter the cure. I don't want this to get worse." Esther nodded in agreement.
About an hour later, My beloved children came running through the door, gigantic smiles spread across their flushed faces. Their happy laughter filled the room.
"Father, mother," They chorused. "we've just had the biggest amount of fun!" They were panting hard, so I guessed they had been running and racing over the hills. Peter's chestnut hair flopped over his eyes, stuck to his forehead. Esther beckoned to Peter.
"Peter, darling, father has found a cure to your lump." She kept her voice calm. "It may hurt just a little bit, but you are a brave little soldier, aren't you?" Peter nodded eagerly. "Now, darling, I want you to lie down, close your eyes and just relax. Think about running over the hills with Mary, and the Sun is shining and the birds are singing."
Peter did as he was told and lay down on the pile of straw that Mary had been asleep on the previous day. I took the liberty of transporting Mary outside and giving her the job of counting our crops. That would keep her busy. I crept back into the house and saw Esther sat by Peter, talking to him soothingly. She held a knife in one hand and Peter's arm up in the other. I rummaged silently in the bag for the special mixture and the flask. Then I joined Esther by Peter's side. The knife's sharp blade glinted in the dim light. This would hurt. I felt so sorry for Peter, for him having to endure this. I spread the mixture onto his buboe with my bare hands. The lump felt revolting under my touch.
Esther placed her hand lightly on Peter's armpit and spoke reassuringly to Peter.
"It will all be fine, Peter, don't worry. You're my brave little soldier. Everything will be fine." I found these words calming me too. Esther held the knife close to the buboe, just half an inch away. She held Peter's arm securely, a concentrated look on her face. She took a deep breath, and then...