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Sad Historical Fiction

Disclaimer: sorry if any facts are not historically accurate. I tried by best to research to support the story and apologize if anything is incorrect!

Joan let a sigh escape her lips, swiping the brush gently across the door with a soft swishing sound. A dominant red “X” now glared back at her – the symbol that implied her father’s sickness. She placed the bucket of paint down that horribly resembled watery blood, and ducked swiftly inside, pulling the heavyweight door closed behind her. She knew quite well that she may have just been outside for the very last time in her life. She knew her father’s sickness would likely soon transfer to her, and then, unless they waited upon a miracle, they would both die together in the sorrowful shack-like-house they called home; their bodies could be thrown into a pit together, to rot with many others who had met the same impending doom. It was common knowledge that all attempts to cure The Plague had been fruitless, despite that nobody wished to admit it.

Just a week ago, Joan hadn’t believed the news that a highly-infectious and deadly disease was spreading faster than fathomable. When her father had awoken one morning complaining of a headache, she had strongly protested it was simply his age, yet that excuse was not one that made sense when the large boils began to sprout around his body. They were first black spots, like awful measly freckles, but within a day, they had grown, some to the size of eggs. Joan’s worse fears had been confirmed: the horrible disease, quickly nicknamed The Great Mortality, was in fact perfectly and horribly real.

“Bring out yer dead,” a man grumbled loudly from outside the door. “C’mon, bring out yer dead! Don’t catch the disease from their mangled corpses!”

“Nobody’s dead yet,” Joan snapped back a little harsher than she’d intended, glaring at the door.

She heard the man’s footsteps die away, just to repeat the same rehearsed lines at the next house. With an awful feeling that bubbled low in her stomach, she thought she heard the sound of what could be the weight of a lifeless human body being hauled out from one of their neighbors'. Their cross had been freshly painted just the other day… would that be her father in just some forty-eight hours or so? She shivered at the thought. So disgustingly dreadful, she loathed how she couldn’t have replied without the “yet”. She wished it wouldn’t have to be a “yet”, and it would just be a definite “Nobody’s dead.” The bubbling in her stomach only increased and was brought to a seething boil as she forced herself to enter the room her father was trapped in.

“I did the cross.”

Her father just nodded weakly. One great boil blossomed right at the top of his neck so he kept his head tilted far back so not to pop it, and many others caused his clothes to appear lumpy in some areas. He was a shade of sickly paleness, the only color on his skin flushed up in his cheeks and forehead, where he appeared awfully clammy and feverish, and in mottled red patches where blood pooled underneath the skin. It pained Joan to see her only loved one remaining like this, and know too well she had no better chances curing him than anyone else did. She leant against the door so to distance herself, staring dismally at his frail form.

Joan glanced up in alarm; her father croaked: You should stay out of here… save yourself while you can…”

“I’m distanced, it’s fine, Father,” Joan replied, blinking quickly at him in hope to hide the shattering heart that hid behind her eyes. “I don’t mind if I get it, as long as I spend time with you.”

Her father replied, his voice wearing away with each syllable: “You are young… I am old… your life shouldn’t end the same time as mine…”

She swallowed a lump that had quickly formed in her throat. “Don’t speak as if you are certain to die, Father, please.”

Her father just shook his head, staring sadly back at her. They had a mutual understanding, and it was that the Great Mortality was so deadly, at the weakened age of his late sixties, Joan’s father hardly stood a chance. The boils had only gotten worse since the measly freckles had first appeared and scattered themselves upon his skin; each day her father spoke less and less, his energy wearing thin; there was no sign of improvement whatsoever, and nothing they could do but pray to the higher power above. Joan turned away, breathing deeply. She wished she could catch it, so she could lay forever with her father, and if he died, she could die too, and see him again, up there. She’d rather feel the pain the sickness would cause her than have to see him suffering like this. And she knew it was awful of her to think that way, but she thought it anyway, fighting the urge to march over and inhale his poisoned breath. The only thing that stopped her was the knowledge that would cause her father greater agony, as him knowing she was better off than him gave him a sense of comfort, and if he were to die, Joan wanted him to die in comfort.

“Save yourself,” her father grumbled again, his voice rough like sand and barely louder than whisper.

“Fine,” Joan breathed. She didn’t face him: tears ran down her cheeks in a steady flow. “I love you.”

She heard a grunt in affectionate reply as she pulled the wooden door closed, just like she had done after painting the cross. They’d be sealed in soon – for forty days, long enough for the plague to leave the infected in their household, or kill them off. Forty days. She hadn’t prepared herself for this, mentally nor physically, and especially worried they would starve if the disease didn’t get to them first. She’d be rationing most the bread and cheese for her father, in the hopes it would give him energy to heal, and would barely eat a morsel a week. She’d lie to her father, say she’d eaten well, and wasn’t putting him first, so he wouldn’t feel guilty. She wished she didn’t have to, but her selfless soul compelled her to.

So, she did. For what felt like a large section of those forty days Joan ate very little, causing her stomach to constantly complain at a persistent growl. It was a horrible feeling, however the feeling of glee that her father had survived for so long, and her morning snap in reply to “Bring out yer dead!” kept her content. It was incredibly rare, really: most would have died or been cured by now, and although her father remained boil-ridden and sickly pale, he was alive, and that was all that mattered. Joan saw the familiar dark freckles speckle her body one evening, and when she brought her father dinner, once again delivered him also a lie with the small serving of stale bread and cheddar. He was too weak to notice when in the next few days boils grew on her body and her legs shook with feebleness when she stood in the doorway every morning and evening. After roughly two weeks (Joan tallied the days off in leftover crimson paint on the kitchen wall), her father had still not been visited by the dreaded Death, yet he had neither improved, and Joan felt a fresh wave of worry hit her right in the gut.

It was a strange feeling, and she didn’t know whether to believe it or not. Something told her, deep down, that her father was not going to make it a couple more servings of the food they had left. Something told her she would have to reply differently to the man in the morning, and be the one lugging out a lifeless human to be thrown into a pit. The feeling went stubbornly ignored for a few days, but Joan didn’t feel any relief when her boils started to shrink and color began to return to her skin, because her father hadn’t improved, and he’d been infected much longer. The feeling came straight back in the most horrible way when her father said this when she greeted him at the doorway once again:

“I think I am going to die today.”

Joan stared at him in disbelief. How could he know? There was no way, no possible explanation, but it was the same with the gut instinct that had nagged at her for the past few nights. Unreasonable, but it felt perfectly true. She swallowed, and decided not to speak a lie.

“Father, I- I think so too,” Joan said solemnly. “But I think… it is best. You will be put out of your misery, and I only wish the best for you, Father.”

Wrinkles creased her father’s mouth into a feeble smile.

“I love you,” she whispered, just like every day.

Her father nodded. He was to speak to even grunt the words now, and Joan knew it was time. She bowed her head respectfully and stood in loving silence, somehow feeling as if she sensed him slip peacefully away after time.

Joan spent the next days allowing herself to recover. She knew now her father was in a sweeter place, it was only right she focus on herself before she achieved the task of taking his body to the man in the morning. She instead ignored him, a hollow feeling in her heart every time he stopped by, laying on the hard mattress of her bedroom staring up at the ceiling, only standing up to go fetch food and water. Four days after her father’s death she was rid completely of symptoms, and replied to the man in the morning by hammering on her front door from the inside, a limp hand clutched in hers.

“Let me out and maybe I will,” she said, allowing her temper to show once again through her voice.

“Yer household is rid of the Great Mortality?” the man replied thickly.

“Yes.”

Joan stood back whilst a harsh scratching sound took place as the man broke the seals that locked the door. A few minutes later, it swung inwards, and she took her turn in dragging a lifeless body forward. The man took her father round the waist and she helped him haul him into the back of a horse-drawn carriage. She wished she was the one slumped lifeless.

A wind danced playfully with Joan’s hair as she watched the man move on to her neighbors, a couple other bodies getting loaded into the carriage. After a while, she observed as the horse trotted off, pulling her father away with it. The wind tugged persistently at her and eventually struck her with the knowledge that this was the first time she’d been outside in about a month and a half.

*

Six hundred and seventy-two years later, a new plague-like experience struck the same place Joan had once cried over her father. London was fresh and new, towering strong and tall, quite different to the London Joan had known. Society tackled the sickness in different, more intellectual and scientific ways. People were not sealed into their homes, they instead isolated under the government’s guidance, and although many people did die, not to such a devastating amount.

Many productions, schools and work were cancelled. Many were shut inside in a national lockdown in similar ways to Joan and her father were locked inside for almost forty days. Life was turned upside down incredibly quickly.

Joanne prepared herself to suffer through 2020. 

September 13, 2022 19:06

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6 comments

Delbert Griffith
21:18 Sep 22, 2022

You did a fine job with this story, given the word count limitations. Perhaps the comparison to covid would have worked better had you had Joan allude to future generations and pandemics, in a general way. Still, one of the best stories I have read this week. Very nice!

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Zoë Page
19:22 Sep 23, 2022

Thanks! I really appreciate the feedback :)

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Carolina Mintz
00:47 Sep 22, 2022

Writing about the Black Death is challenging, and symptoms were far more graphic than you have described. But I like the connection between father and daughter, which comes through nicely. I think, however, this being a very rich moment in history for the subject of a story, you might have had a better story if you hadn't suddenly catapulted your reader into the 21st Century to make a comparison with Covid. Historical fiction keeps the reader in that time and place. That said, I could see you did research - and one cannot write history wit...

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Zoë Page
17:40 Sep 22, 2022

Thanks for the feedback. I understand with trying out new things in writing its not always going to work out and I appreciate the constructive criticism.

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Michał Przywara
23:37 Sep 18, 2022

I like the struggle Joan has here. It was a time of great loss, and her father was all she had left. As such she was ready to give up on life herself (though perhaps this is tempered by her belief in an afterlife). The only reason she doesn't proceed down that road is because of the distress it would have caused her father. Well, she doesn't pursue it as far as that's possible, but ultimately she still catches the plague. Drawing parallels between back then and now is interesting, and kind of puts things in perspective. We lost a lot, and ...

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Zoë Page
10:09 Sep 19, 2022

Joan's struggling was definitely something I wanted to make obvious. I wanted she and her father to appear to have a really beautiful and loving relationship, without actually showing any of their interactions before her father caught the plague. Originally I had two stories going on at once: one for Joan in the middle ages, and one for Joanne in 2020, however I changed it to just that snippet at the end in the hopes of making it easier to understand and feel for Joan a bit more. When I first heard of COVID, one of the first things I though...

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