[Image Credit: “A telephone operator wears protective gauze in 1918,” Bettmann / Bettmann Archive]
A woman lies on a cot on the veranda of an old plantation house, now a hospital, with an eternal fire roaring in the parlor despite the Alabama heat, another springing from the big oil can out back, incinerating. The virus is too small to see under a microscope but is clear to the naked eye: a flu like any other, yet followed by blue lips and a reddening cough. It started in a doughboy camp in Kansas, then strengthened on the Western Front before shipping back to America, a country still healing from the deep gash across its middle. Just a day or two ago, when she was fine, the woman sat at her kitchen table and read in the paper about the horrors of trench warfare and its mud and sulfur mustard, then looked out her window at an open field and watched a few sweaty men dig a deep pit; she lifted the garlic pomander that hung around her neck to her nose, sniffed deeply, then let it fall back between her breasts and went about her day. When the doctor finally admitted her, he wrapped a white tag around her big toe just as he had begun to do with every new patient as the death toll rose and turned numbers into abstractions, destroyers into ghost ships.
The flu had hit her like a flour truck, or a sack of bricks, and her husband had tried to get her to drink a hot toddy, the bourbon, honey, and lemon juice burning straight down to her womb. She knew the moment that she got sick like she knew the moment that she got pregnant; the doctor, the same man who would tag her beating toe, told her that such things were impossible, that by the time we feel anything, it’s already taken a-hold of us. This sick felt wicked, she thought, but not as wicked as birthing her twins, or having the tonsils cut from her gullet into a bowl like two slices of plum.
It struck her in the night, a wrenching headache that twisted her from a deep sleep. The summer before, her brother had gotten a sudden headache––like a thunder-clap––and died minutes later on their parents’ old fainting couch. She had read in the paper about advances in the study of kinship, about chromb-a-sombs, and wondered if this headache would kill her like the one that killed him. She fought to keep her eyes open as her husband bellowed next to her in the hot, chittering darkness. She dreamt, wide-eyed, of a red camellia and a white camellia birthing a pink one, then two pinks birthing another two pinks, then a red, then a white, until the flowers and their generations spun out into a nauseating kaleidoscope that brought her dinner back to her lips. She slid from the blanket to floor and pulled the porcelain pan out from under bed, then retched into it as quietly as she could. When she was done, she stared into the profusion, and as she tried to lift her head, she sneezed so powerfully that it parted the waters of the bedpan. At that moment, she knew that it was just the flu, not inheritance, and that she would live.
After hours of spinning flowers, the woman peeled off her damp nightgown before the rooster screamed, shook herself into her day clothes, and fingered her hair into a low, wet chignon. She kneaded the biscuit dough as she always had and watched it rise before the sun. She tapped hot beans and gravy onto the plates of her husband and little sons, then croaked out a reveille.
Her husband said grace then chewed silently, watching a great moth of sweat spread across the back of her brown cotton dress. It was hot, and she was a little bit plump, but this was something else entirely. He excused the children and carried her back to bed. As he laid her down, she looked up to him, smiling, and whispered,
I pushed both the twins out of me––feet first!
She was afraid, and had endured the stench of garlic as if she were fending off the undead, but she knew the hierarchy of things even if she didn’t know their nomenclature: a woman in 1918 had greater things to fear than a bug. She didn’t fully understand how her eggs were different than those of her chickens, or why her first baby had turned indigo in her arms, or the cataclysm in her brother’s mind, but she was determined to learn, spending her nickels at the newsstand in town and ripping out paragraphs to press under an old, dismantled windowpane. That morning, she saw the worry in her husband’s face, an altruistic worry that she could tell was only for her, though she knew that this was a flu that, against the laws of nature, killed young and healthy men like him; it was a soldier’s disease, not a woman’s. He tucked her under the quilt, then made her a hot toddy over the breakfast fire. He tipped the amber liquor into her lips, and she swallowed obediently before her inner tides turned and the toddy squirted up from her throat like the piss from a baby boy.
She fell back into her flower study.
The next morning, as her husband worked on a broken wheel of their horse cart, he heard an unforgettable sound emanate from inside the house, and ran inside to find his wife as blue and spotted as a blackbird’s egg. He carried her out, flopped her over the rump of his horse as if she were a bounty, then pulled himself up and took off towards town. As they rode, the woman’s head beat with pain, and she mistook the horse’s gallop with a war song.
Tramp tramp tramp!
The boys are marching
I spy a Kaiser at the door!
And we’ll get a lemon pie
And we’ll squash him in the eye
And there won’t be any Kaiser anymore!
They lived far from town and the shanties that leaned against it, past the cemetery that had run out of consecrated ground—out in the feudal lands, where the children of sharecroppers walked barefoot along the long dirt road, swatting at fat air bugs with old cotton stems. As her husband hollered and kicked his bewildered horse, who had never known urgency, the belly-saddled woman lifted her chin from its twitching hide and gazed at the children, who stopped walking and stared at her with open, empty mouths, their feet cobbled red with hookworm.
She wondered if they were part of the multitudes of wandering orphans of war and flu that pattered silently across the world, filthy, sick, with futures unforeseeable––or if they were just poor Southern folk. Whether or not she lived, she thought, her twins would never end up like this. They had a father, and their father owned a modest country home and his own small swath of land that his grandfather had rightfully bought from one of the slave owners in the area—a blameless piece of land, she’d always figured, even if the old shed outback had a iron shackle on its ceiling. Her husband was a country boy, that was for sure, and their budget allowed for only a little bit of outside help, but he ran his business in town and rode his horse slowly down that road nearly every morning, taking his time to say howdy to everyone along the way, stopping at length to visit the lonely. He was a good man and a good father and would never hold the children in contempt after her passing like so many men would. Her children would always be loved and cared for, she thought, and would never wander with the ones who watched her and grabbed each other’s hands.
Holding hands. That, she thought, was probably that invisible moment of conception that her doctor had told her about during her first pregnancy. A few days earlier, she and her husband had gone to a tent meeting to “pray down the epidemic,” and although the preacher had told the worshippers to keep their hands in the air and away from their brethren, the woman could not contain her faith and grabbed the hands of the women next to her, both of whom pulled away in disgust. They were now at the big plantation hospital in town, their fates unknown.
Though she suspected that her own faith had sickened her, the woman clutched it like a bitter tonic, remembering how it got her through the night of pushing and the months of stigmatic bleeding. She tried to concentrate, to admonish herself for imagining her children without a mother when it was faith itself that brought them into world and kept them there––but could only cough up a slug of blood that hit the dust like egg to flour.
They rode on.
This was a real plague, a plague with pilgrims.
A young suffragette hoofed it down the road to town deep in thought, a gold and purple rosette pinned to her nursing whites.
Yards behind her two Klansmen strolled, slapping the bugs off their backs like hooded flagellants.
A horse pulled a buggy, a living man at the reins, a dead one propped up, chin down in his Sunday best, in the passenger seat.
Shanties appeared, then houses with porches where old men spit despite the new health code.
Little boys climbed piles of sappy wood coffins outside the undertaker’s cottage.
Little girls jumped rope, panting a diddy that seemed to have spread faster than the disease itself.
I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza
I opened up the window
And in flew Enza!
The yellowing chintz curled from the walls, the victim of humidity, fumigation, and the heat from the parlor fireplace that burned regardless of the season, though the very concept of seasons had lost its meaning as the world pushed closer and closer to an armistice; that day, it looked as if the war had just begun, cots with moaning bodies lining nearly every inch of the old plantation hospital as if a siege had taken place. Seasons imply change. 1918 had intensified without any care for a human sense of time or boundary, and burning excitement at the news from the Front was met with a furrowed brow and a thermometer. There were those who said that the war was a simple distraction from Armageddon, and that dying in a trench in France was a mere fantasy, a better way to go than being thrown into the plague pit.
Her husband held her to his chest and barked at the attending nurse, a woman so old that she must have bandaged Yankee and Rebel alike. She knew he loved his wife, and promised him that even though there was no room inside the hospital, she could make a bed for her with the others out on the veranda.
The air is heavy! he cried. It’ll flood her!
We may not have the healing air of California, but this ain’t no miasma, the nurse assured him.
As the nurse excused herself to prepare the cot, the doctor appeared, the one who had told the woman how things silently began. He spoke softly to her husband until the nurse returned and led the three to a row of cots separated by hanging sheets on north side of the wraparound, away from the street. The nurse helped the husband position the sick woman on the cot, then pulled the bewildered man away by the hook of his arm up the grand, peeling staircase towards quarantine as he sniffled and resisted like a child drawn from play.
The doctor placed a cold compress on the delirious woman’s forehead, then pulled her warm foot gently from the cocoon of sheets, wrapped a tag around her toe, and never returned.
A woman lies on a cot and watches cotton sheets breathe deeply in the breeze..
I see the setting sun, fireflies erupting from the long grass. Wild pink magnolias. I feel a storm coming, the toes of tree frogs tugging at my skin, and I smell, from far away, the sharpness of ozone. The nurse is right: this is not a miasma, the kind that breeds a plague, and there are no doctors with long beaks here to prick my body, only a yellowhammer perched on my toe. Maybe, before the lightening cracks, I will realize that this is mercy.