*Nainika’s Note* 50th story! Gosh, how monumental! AND, today is even more special because the 9th is my Reedsy-versary, the day way back in November when I joined! Enjoy :)
The buzzing never stops.
It is a constant noise that has completely taken over the normally bustling city.
The city is now a ghost town.
Complete with the bodies to prove it.
The buzzing is the only sound that you can hear.
Apart from the cries and screams of family members as a loved one finally succumbs to the fever.
And the sounds of the wheelbarrows rattling up and down the cobblestone streets, collecting bodies.
The American plague, they call it.
Since it is terrorizing the biggest city of our nation.
Nobody knows how it came here.
On ships, maybe.
But I believe something in the city itself caused the disease to originate.
After the first few people started getting sick, everyone tried to avoid getting it.
They began keeping their distance from each other.
Avoided shaking hands.
They covered their faces with handkerchiefs dipped in vinegar or smoked tobacco.
Which they thought would prevent them from breathing in contaminated air.
But the disease is not airborne.
Or spread from person to person.
It only is caused by infected mosquitoes.
Thus, the American plague was born.
Born, and borne.
But there are whispers that ‘Yellow Fever’ is a better name for it.
Because in some cases, a person’s skin turns yellow.
The whites of their eyes turn yellow.
Alongside the other horrible symptoms.
Abdominal pain and vomiting, often of blood.
And bleeding from the nose, mouth, and eyes.
I know, because I have seen it.
Within seven to ten days, most are dead.
The wealthy have long fled the city.
We free African Americans were left behind.
Because they thought we were immune.
We are not.
The color of our skin does not make us immune to the bites of mosquitoes.
Our blood does.
And last I checked, both white and black bleed red.
The summer started normally.
Although it was hotter than most, many thought it was just a random occurrence.
But the humidity was unbearable.
The sticky heavy air.
That clung to everybody.
And everybody hated it.
Philadelphia’s muddy swamps spawned millions of mosquitoes.
I used to be able to go to school.
Even though there was barely any education for me because of the color of my skin.
It did not stop me from wanting, no craving to learn, however.
I used to sit in our small garden.
Outside the house that poppa built for us.
I used to sit there and read.
I loved reading.
Although books were scarce, and that too for a white person.
Which meant I had to beg, borrow, and plead for a book.
And I treasured every single page that took me away from my life, if only for a few hours.
But now, I cannot wile away hours.
And even if I wanted to, there are no more books for me.
The wealthy took them away when they fled the city.
But now, my mother needs me.
My father needs me.
And because I am the only one in my small family who is not sick.
I used to be able to write my name in careful cursing.
Amara Ellington, I would scratch out in neat letters.
Over and over and over and over again.
Until I could do it faster.
Until I could do it better.
My quills and parchment were replaced.
With a needle for bleeding.
And a rag to mop up the blood.
I still try, however,
Still try to write.
Still try to practice my letters.
It gets hard some days.
When momma vomits up blood.
Or when poppa screams at the hallucinations only he can see.
All I can do is mop their sweaty foreheads.
And kiss their pale hands.
Bring them a glass of water.
Or sit with them.
They tell me to go.
Get out of the city.
But I cannot leave my parents to die.
Cannot leave them alone.
They also tell me to stop caring for them.
Even though I have already had the Fever.
Dr. Rush says that if you have gotten the Fever and recovered, you will not get it again.
Like how he did.
I got the Fever.
Early in the season.
And I recovered.
I still do not know.
I had the same symptoms as my parents.
With the bloody vomit and the hallucinations.
The whites of my eyes were yellow.
But one night.
The worst night.
The night where I thought I was going to die.
Something or someone came to me.
They pressed a cool hand to my burning forehead.
In my fevered gaze, I had thought it was an angel.
They told me to live.
And then vanished.
In the morning my fever broke.
My momma and poppa cried.
They called it a miracle.
A touch from God.
But I thought it was my mind.
My last shred of willpower, telling me to live.
I did not tell momma and poppa that.
I was content to let them believe what they wanted.
Because in the greater scheme of things, does it really matter?
I sit outside in my garden.
In the wilting garden.
In the city that only buzzes.
Amara Elling-I start, but a shriek from the window makes me jerk.
I thrust my quill and parchment to the side and hurry inside.
The sight makes me want to vomit.
My mother’s warm chocolate skin is pale.
And her lips are bright red.
From her blood.
Her yellowish eyes are flickering wildly from my face to the window.
White froth mixes with her red blood, turning it a deep pink.
I hurry and grab a rag from the sideboard.
Dunk it into the semi-cold water bucket near her bed.
Place it on her forehead, wiping away the sweat.
Once she is calmed down, I go in and wipe away the blood froth on her lips.
Her eyes flutter close, and her chest heaves, but she is looking better than before.
I take a deep breath.
I do not resent my parents for becoming ill.
From taking away my childhood.
It was not their fault.
They did not deserve my hatred.
Momma said once, that life is too short to hold a grudge.
I once held a grudge against Emily Baskerson from down the street.
She was the mailman’s daughter.
She used to pull my braided hair.
And laugh at my worn clothes.
Because poppa and momma were too poor to give me new ones.
And her group of friends never used to come to my defense.
Momma told me to ignore them.
That if I did so, Emily would stop.
But whenever I ignored them, they would pull my hair harder.
Shove my books out of my hands.
Stomp on my parchment and quills.
So I held a grudge.
But then the mosquitoes came.
And the mailman died.
And the mailman’s wife died.
And soon, little Emily died.
I saw her body in the wheelbarrow.
From the window.
Bloated, and yellow.
Red blood staining her pale skin.
And new clothes.
And I thought to myself.
New clothes and straight hair could not save her from the Fever.
But I felt bad.
That she had died.
She was smart, you know.
Smart as a man.
Used to be able to recite multiplication facts like she was stomping on my quills.
The world needed a girl like her.
But the Fever took her.
And I let go of my grudge.
I head back out to the garden, hoping to at least write my name once.
Amar- I start, but a yell from the house makes my ink splatter on my hands.
It is poppa this time.
I hurry inside, not even bothering to put my quills and parchment away properly.
He is shaking in his bed, spittle flying everywhere as he battles the images from his mind.
He is silently screaming, mouth open in horror.
I grab the still damp washcloth and wring it over his face.
He does not calm down.
I move to get more water, but his hand clamps down on my wrist, stopping me.
It does not hurt, but his grip is strong.
I look at him.
His gaze lands on me.
His grip tightens.
Tell your momma I love her, Sweet Pea, and I love you too, he says.
I tilt my head, confused.
His lips, bloodied with spittle and froth, twitch up into a smile.
I love you, he whispers.
Then his yellowed eyes close.
It takes me a minute.
The house is strangely quiet.
But the ringing in my ears drowns out all sounds.
Poppa? I whisper.
He does not move.
He is gone.
I scream, tears flowing down my face.
He cannot be gone.
Poppa! I scream, clutching his limp hand.
But he does not wake up.
And will never wake up again.
I somehow find myself back outside.
Outside in the garden.
I stare blankly down at my parchment.
My half-scratched out name.
I scream and rip it up.
Throwing the pieces into the mud and stomping on them.
And then break down.
Break down crying.
Because I have just ruined the last thing he gave to me.
I remember the day he came back home from his job at the docks.
Pulled out a bundle of paper from his dirty bag.
And handed them to me.
I did not care that they were scraps.
What I loved was that he had taken the time to collect them for me.
And give them to me.
I treasured every scrap.
Even the ones that had newspaper print on the back.
I blink back into the present, the ghost of poppa’s smile imprinted in my mind.
And pick up the scraps of parchment.
They are nothing more than ripped pieces of parchment now.
Like my heart.
Shredded like the pieces of my heart.
Because my father is dead.
From Yellow Fever.
And he is never coming back.
I have another name for the Fever now.
Because it shreds through families.
And through me.
I am tired.
Tired of death.
Tired of sickness.
Tired of mosquitos.
Tired of life.
I do not know what is worse.
To outlive all those you love.
Watch them die in front of you.
Or know that you have cheated Death.
That you have gone through what they are going through.
And you lived.
That is the worst kind of suffering, I think.
I hear a knock on the front door.
It startles me.
I walk out of the garden and into the house.
The front door is barely hanging on its hinges anymore.
Poppa was going to fix it.
But then he got sick.
The ‘death carrier’ as we call him is at the door.
He is the one who brings the bodies to a pit.
And dumps them there.
Go away, I tell him.
He does not move.
His face is covered in the bird hat.
It looks terrifying.
I need the body, he finally says.
I shake my head.
He will not get poppa’s body.
There is no dead body here, I insist.
My stomach feels squeamish at the thought of referring to poppa as a body.
He does not move.
I need the body, he repeats.
Then he shoves his way through the door.
I shriek and bat at his arms.
He will not get poppa’s body.
But he is a grown man.
And I am a child.
I can only watch helplessly as he effortlessly pushes me away.
And heaves poppa’s body out the door.
And shoves his body amidst the four others rotting there.
The sight and smell make me want to gag, but I stay there.
Do not take him! I yell at him.
He does not respond.
Goodbye poppa, I think to myself.
I watch from the door as the wheelbarrow clatters down the empty cobblestone streets.
All the way out of view.
Until poppa is truly gone.
Momma did not even get to say goodbye.
And neither did I.
Because I did not realize poppa was so close to death.
But now that he is gone, I wish I could have told him that I loved him.
One last time.
Another shriek rips through the air, and I jump.
It is coming from the Landstrover’s house.
They have a sick son.
He is four I think.
He must have died.
Sure enough, another death carrier clatters up the cobblestone road.
I turn inside my house before I have to watch another grieving parent.
I pull out my quill and run my finger over the feather tip.
I wish I could write more.
But the Yellow Fever has taken over my life.
Or...taken my life.
I suppose it has done both.
Momma is all I have left.
But I am not sure how much longer she will hold on.
I can see her suffering.
I do not want her to suffer.
As much as I do not want her to leave me.
I am conflicted.
As if she is privy to my thoughts, she jerks on her bed.
I run to her, forgetting my quill.
She is burning up.
I touch her forehead.
It is hotter than the sun.
I grab the semi-cold bucket of water.
I start to dip the rag into it but instead, dump the entire thing onto her.
She splutters, but it has done its job.
She is marginally cooler now.
There is only so much one can do in the heat of summer.
Her bedsheets will at least be cool now.
But I need more water.
I go out to the well in the backyard.
The well has served us pretty nicely these past few months.
I hook the bucket to the line and drop it down.
I hear the splash and then slowly start to crank the wheel, bringing it back up.
My arms burn.
My shoulders burn.
But I welcome the pain.
It helps me focus.
The bucket comes up finally, and I am shocked to see it is only half full.
I peer over the well, and sure enough, the bottom is farther down than before.
The heat is sucking away the water.
I run inside with the water bucket and put it by momma’s bed.
She is pale but quiet.
I do not see that her chest fails to rise.
I grab a sheet off the bed and run back outside.
I cover the well with the sheet so that the water does not escape.
For if there is no water, then we might as well be dead.
I go back inside, slowly.
I sit on the table and chew on a piece of hard cheese.
Soon, I become aware that my breathing is the only sound in the house.
I turn to momma.
She is not breathing.
I scream and run to her.
There is no pulse in her.
She is dead.
Her hand is colder than it was even before she got sick.
I sink to the ground and clutch her hand to my face, sobbing.
How could she leave me?
How could she die without saying goodbye?
The Shredder has come through my house again.
Only this time, there is nobody left alive.
I can feel my heart shattering.
My momma was a good person.
She always put me straight.
She helped me with my letters.
She put food on the table.
And she loved me.
There is another knock on the door.
I do not startle at it.
I knew he would come back.
I know now how they find dead bodies.
They listen and wait for the screams of the loved ones.
Vultures, they are.
I wish they would all die.
I do not make a sound.
Hopefully, he will go away.
But another knock sounds and I get up.
I pad slowly to the door.
I reach for the knob but hesitate.
Do I want her to go?
Do I want him to take her?
Can I not dig her grave right in the backyard?
The knock sounds again, louder this time.
I sniffle and open the door.
The same death carrier stands there.
With his bird mask and hooked beak.
There is a dead body here, I whisper.
I think I can see a spark of sadness in his brown eyes.
I know, he says.
I let him in.
I follow him as he takes her outside.
The sun beats down on us, hot and heavy.
He does not shove her body inside, but rather gently places her limp body into his wheelbarrow.
I dash up and clutch her cold hand.
I love you, I whisper, before the death carrier pushes me away.
Wish for death, child, he says, turning back to look at me.
My vision blurs with tears.
What? I ask him, sniffling.
The city is dying, child. It is best to wish for a painless death, he whispers.
He turns and clatters away, leaving me standing there, alone.
I somehow make my way to the garden.
The garden that has been there through it all.
I pull out my last piece of parchment.
The last thing my father gave to me.
The last memory of him that I have.
And I write.
Amara Ellington, I scratch out.
I do not worry about neatness.
Nor about readability.
I doubt that anyone will read this.
Amara Ellington, I write.
Over and over again.
Until I add another word.
Under the scratched out letters of my name, I write another word.
I write another word.
And one last one.