After a restless night's sleep, I reluctantly got out of bed, feeling the ache in my joints and the weariness of my body. I wondered if it was just lack of rest or something more concerning. I examined my neck and under my arms, relieved to find no swelling. That meant I hadn't reached that stage of the illness yet. Taking a moment to assess my symptoms, I realized I had no headache or bone-chilling chills. Swallowing, I found no soreness in my throat. Perhaps it was nothing more than a consequence of a poor night's sleep.
Or so I hoped.
Pushing aside thoughts of illness, I prepared my breakfast. The bread had turned stale days ago, but I hesitated to discard it. Just yesterday, I had visited the cottage of the local baker, who was stricken with sickness. It seemed unlikely he would survive another day. Fresh bread might become a rarity soon, and I had no intention of baking any myself. I could almost hear my mother's voice echoing in my mind, reminding me of the importance of cooking and cleaning to secure a respectable husband. She would have been appalled by my chosen profession, but since she had passed away years ago from consumption, I didn't need to concern myself with her judgments.
Dipping the bread in milk, fortunately not spoiled yet, helped to alleviate its staleness. Once breakfast was finished, I dressed for the day, which promised to be busy due to the plague that had struck my secluded corner of the world. I started with a cotton shirt and linen trousers as a base layer, although I couldn't help but imagine my mother turning in her grave with shame at the sight of me donning trousers instead of a dress. I put on wool socks and black leather boots, followed by my long black coat, which stubbornly clung to dust and soot no matter how often I brushed it off. Holding my mask, I contemplated my options. Lavender or peppermint? Perhaps both. I placed them inside the beak-like mask and secured it to my face. Finally, I placed my wide-brimmed black hat on my head and looked at my reflection in the fogged eyepieces of the mask. I couldn't help but smile.
I admired how I appeared when dressing for work.
Even better, this ensemble provided anonymity. No one would suspect that their physician was a woman, which was a horrific notion to some. Over the years, I had perfected a masculine voice and demeanor, fooling everyone during my education that I was of the opposite sex.
Gathering my supplies, I stepped outside, closing the wooden door behind me. The day was cloudy, with the sun barely visible as a faint yellow disc on the horizon. My breakfast churned in my stomach, its odor overpowering even through the fragrant mask. There was a sickly-sweet scent of decay in the air, and I soon discovered its source. At the end of my street, where children used to play on a grassy meadow, now lay a mass grave. Piles of bodies, in various stages of decomposition, were being added to by two perspiring men. How long would it be until they too succumbed to the illness? Based on what I had witnessed, it wouldn't be long at all. Amidst the stench of decay, another smell emerged — smoke. It was distant but likely to draw near soon. When I returned home later, I would probably be greeted by a towering bonfire fueled by people and disease instead of wooden logs.
Turning away from the grim scene, I set out to face the day.
My first stop was the baker's cottage, and as expected, he had already passed away. His lifeless eyes stared into nothingness, his dry and cracked lips concealing an anemic tongue. No more suffering for him, at least. His widow and children were not far behind. Lying in their beds, they watched me with glassy eyes, their hair matted with sweat. The youngest, a child of no more than three, looked terrified as I approached, but he lacked the strength to object. Dark smudges marred the angles of his jaw, indicating the onset of buboes. I filled a ladle with cool water from a bucket in the corner and allowed him to drink.
"Thank you," the child rasped after quenching his thirst, his voice barely audible. Fear still lingered, but it had diminished. "What... are you?"
I smiled beneath my mask. Many had likened my appearance to that of a bird of prey, mostly because of the beak-shaped mask. Others had screamed in terror, convinced that I was a harbinger of death or even the cause of the rampant disease plaguing the country. Speaking softly, I replied, "I am a physician. I am here to help you."
"Oh." Exhaustion etched itself onto his features, and a fit of coughing seized the boy, producing wet and rattling sounds. The illness had taken hold of his lungs. The poor child didn't have much time left.
Reaching into my bag, I retrieved a glass jar. "Here, let me assist you." Wearing leather gloves, I carefully picked up one of my small companions and murmured to the sleek black creature, "Help this boy, please." With utmost care, I placed the leech on the boy's neck, where it eagerly attached itself and began to feed. The boy, weakened as he was, didn't offer a peep of protest.
I repeated the process with the other family members, selecting leeches from the jar and attaching them to different parts of their bodies — under their arms, at the angles of their jaws, and, in the case of the widow, in the groin area where a fist-sized bubo oozed purulent fluid. Once the leeches had engorged themselves sufficiently, I removed them and returned them to the jar.
My hands delved back into the black bag, retrieving a bible and a rosary. Silently, I recited the Lord's Prayer and bestowed blessings upon the ailing family. It wouldn't be much longer now. I had witnessed the plague far too many times to be mistaken. They had perhaps a day left, maybe two if luck was on their side.
The scene at the baker's cottage replayed itself over and over as I entered each house, encountering more dying and dead individuals. I tirelessly attempted to alleviate their suffering, grinding herbs in my mortar to make a bitter broth that I spoon-fed to those who could still swallow. I applied more leeches, offered prayers. I wasn't entirely certain if I was making a significant difference, but I persisted, remembering the Hippocratic Oath I had taken during my education.
By the time I returned home, the sun had long vanished, leaving behind a dusky twilight. Elongated shadows danced and frolicked on the walls of neighboring buildings. As anticipated, a massive fire burned, reducing the infected bodies to scattered bones and ash. Opening the door to my home, I glanced back and shuddered. So many lives lost and many more to come.
But... if the Lord saw fit to grant me another day, I would rise in the morning, dress once again.
And I would venture among the sick, striving to alleviate their suffering.
Moral: In the face of adversity and rampant suffering, compassion and dedication shine brightest, even when cloaked in anonymity.
About the Creator
Passionate storyteller and creative explorer.
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