Sprawled across the Emerald Fields’ rolling hills, Oakwood had once been a beacon of festivals and parties. It attracted everyone from the lords and ladies of the High Court down to the lowest barflies of the Shade Barrows. Now, its stone roads and curved side streets, hugged on either side by shops shouldered on top of one another, were silent save for the echoes of swinging shop signs. Where wooden street carts once stood with promises of sweets for children, there were now mountains of bodies under greasy brown tarps, waiting to be transported to the burning pits. As he sat at his kitchen window above the street, Simon watched plague ministers, haunting the streets in their black robes and beaked masks, put more red circles on doorways.
Simon pressed his forehead against the dirty glass. He held a fat gallon bottle; shine pooled near the bottom. He sat, crouched on a stool, nursing a pain that seeped into the folds of his brain. Like a living mist, it spread through him and found its way into his memories.
* * *
The early months were crisp. There was a chill that cleared both the air and the mind, so when one saw a tree, they saw the whole tree. It was a time for community before the days grew longer and warmer and before baser instincts combined with alcohol made fools of many. For some, those days couldn’t come soon enough.
Simon sat on his window’s ledge, letting the noonday sun warm his olive skin. Across from him, Nanya sat with one leg, toned as if carved of alabaster, hanging over the side. The once-busy streets below were void of life. The novelty was humorous, in a way.
The other night, Nanya had made a comment over dinner of how nice it was not to hear a ruckus coming from Oakwood’s square and its alehouses; the roads had been silent, and the songs of nature reached beyond the town’s walls. Following the advice of the High Sages, the governor had ordered everyone indoors and businesses shut down until the plague passed. It had been months now. Simon’s lack of employment and his inability to feed his family had left his manhood fragile. He took his mind and body, honed from years as a talented stonemason, and put them to use as muscle for an underground tavern. He was gone most nights, and Nanya grew restless.
While secluded from society, she rediscovered old journals in a hope chest — the Rites of Balance were her family’s heritage of physical and emotional exercise that had been worked into prayer. While Simon was away and their only son was asleep in his cot, she would light her devotion candles and begin. For months, as the plague ravaged both the grand, gold-tipped towers of the monarchy and the lowliest hovels, Nanya found deep comfort in the ritualistic exercise; her faith was restored, her worries about her worth as a partner and parent were replaced by optimism, and her body grew lean like a dancer’s. She hoped Simon would notice.
In his work, Simon saw the bottom of society’s barrel. Mercenaries, quack healers, scum with pockmarked cheeks selling a new habit of smoking sticks laced with basilisk venom — all of them were gambling, whoring, and singing lewd songs in the only tavern brave enough to defy the governor’s orders. The sickness of depravity in the place corrupted Simon’s already fragile ego. He did take notice of Nanya’s transformation; he just couldn’t believe it was for him.
As weeks turned into months, what had started as a novel experience of human ingenuity against nature’s greatest scythe became a nightmare as the plague widened like an incoming wave, devouring the artisan and merchant neighborhoods. One in three would perish.
With the help of the governor’s thugs, the underground tavern closed. Simon, out of work and fractured, found a taste for the black market moonshine; Nanya continued her devotions. Most days, Simon spent lucid moments with their child before losing himself to drink; on other days, there were no lucid moments.
Weeks passed. The nights became cooler. On the Night of the Hunter, when the pregnant moon turned pink-red at soon-to-midnight, Oakwood should have thrown what was known throughout the kingdom as, if not the most lavish Moon Party, then the most mesmerizing homage to the mysterious god. With the party canceled under the governor’s orders, the misplaced energy hung over the town like a phantom. Simon felt it in his bones. He’d been without frivolity, labor, and society for too long. He felt less of himself. It was reflected in his and Nanya’s marriage bed.
Through her devotions, Nanya discovered marriage secrets: tributes to her family’s god that inspired use with a spouse. When their little one was asleep, she made attempts, but Simon was inside his head. This was nothing new — Simon had always had a taste for daydreams and escapes, even after he married his Nanya, the most desirable woman east of the Black Chasm. She had given him a strong, honest son, and he had well-paying work. But he always wanted more.
Then, the plague. In the beginning, though frightening, it was manageable. What was not manageable was the fear that took hold. Good conversations were drowned out by yelling, and ministers of the crown passed down their own decrees, never doubting that the king and queen shared their dismay. All manner of guest rights and gatherings were abolished in hopes of containing the spread. Simon, unable to provide, was blind to his other blessings, though he never mentioned his disquiet to Nanya, who simply coped as best she could. Nanya blossomed, while Simon frayed.
They fought endlessly. Simon couldn’t trust. He was angry, but the moonshine made it hard to see. He said things to Nanya, and about her, that were worse than he’d heard the tavern scum say to the barmaids. He accused her of bringing another man into their marriage bed. Nanya with her newfound strength did not take it lightly, and she demanded an apology. Simon spat on the floor.
Their fights grew ugly. One night, as warm breezes heralded the incoming summer through the window curtains, their love laid dormant. Their insults were cruel and smacked their apartment walls like tavern darts. Simon was blind drunk, Nanya was on the offensive. Their faces were so close together they could kiss.
Nanya paused. Behind Simon, their child stood in the doorway of his bedroom with a new pain on his face — one of fear and of the realization that safety didn’t always mean being safe. Simon turned and saw, and everything fell away.
The next morning, miserably hungover, Simon sat at the table. Nanya, with sleep in her eyes and their child in her arms, quietly walked up to him and put a note at his elbows, and went back to bed. He unfolded it. In a simple script, the note said father.
Confused, he read it again. Then again, and again, like a prayer, until it resonated. Father, father. Slowly, it turned to husband, husband, husband…
Later that day, after he’d gone to speak to his guild master about calling a conclave to bring business back to town, Simon came home, finding Nanya at her plants on the window sill. As she hummed to a pot of lavender, her hazel eyes caught the sun’s golden hour. Simon walked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. She rested her thick hair against his nose. He inhaled. They smiled.
It happened so fast.
First, Nanya came home with a cough; then, their son caught a fever. The sun rose twice before their bodies were stiff and cold in their beds.
On the third sunrise, he sat, crouched on a stool and watching the plague ministers, nursing his grief. He sniffed back tears but caught a whiff of something: the delicate, sweet aroma of lavender. Simon sniffed again, deeply and gratefully. He looked at the bottle of shine and then put it in the waste bucket. He walked to the back of their dwelling and pulled back a heavy burlap curtain. Nanya’s devotion box sat on the floor, simple and stout. Simon took out the journal, sat down, and began to read.