Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I dug through my coat pockets until I found a pack

In the days immediately after the plague the buses were running again, though there were few passengers. During long stretches of the day, a coach would be occupied by the driver alone, guiding rows of empty seats through the rainy avenues. The smell of burning was still in the air. Everything smelled like fire: our hair, our clothes, our shelters, even the food we ate. It would take a whole winter of rain to wash all that burning from the air, to clean the soot from the faces of the buildings and citizens left behind. We didn't mind the charred air; it masked other, worse smells we wanted to forget. The buses were part of a general plan to return life to its normal state as soon as possible. Vast numbers of citizens and large swaths of the city had been reduced to cinders but public transportation was up and running. Schools, hospitals, churches and liquor stores were open and I made pilgrimages to all of them in their turn. We all did. What else were we going to do?

I saw the woman outside one of the hospitals, where she stood on the sidewalk opposite the main doors. People broken and breaking, mending and fading, living and dying all streamed past while she held herself immobile. Her hands and face were pale, almost the yellow of fresh butter, startling against a black wool coat. Beneath her coat a crimson scarf wound about her neck, a burst of color that brought to mind houses aflame in the middle of the night. I had seen this woman before, during the days of panic. I shuddered and walked on, into the hospital to do my duty. The woman and I were destined to collide; her duties intersected unhappily with mine and I didn't wish to associate with a thing like her. These were the sorts of thoughts I couldn't afford to be distracted by at the hospital. It was best to concentrate on the awful task that lay ahead of me.

The national guardsmen checked my identification and I was escorted back into the secure wards. A stack of files in sickening yellow binders with crimson and black tabs was waiting for me. The charge nurse put the files into my arms and then scuttled away as if it was me who was unclean. Her name badge said Angela. She was permitted to ask my name and I was permitted to tell her, but she never asked. I never offered. I carried the files to the dim office the hospital lent us, placed the ugly folders on the desk and closed the door behind me. I sat down and examined the files. The epidemic was officially over, the buses ran on time and there was fresh produce at the grocers but there is no end to death. Every day I think of that poem by Shelly: Death is here, death is there, death is busy everywhere. There is a high suicide rate in my department.

The files were all in order. The doctors had followed the directives and it was time for me to act as an officer of the state. One by one I signed the last forms, closed the files and set them aside. Through the closed door I heard someone cry out in pain, a woman I think. There was always noise in the secure wards.

I dug through my coat pockets until I found a pack of cigarettes. Smoking is of course forbidden in hospitals but the office stank of carbolic and the sickness and I needed the nicotine to steady my nerves before I went out into the wards. Some of my colleagues carried whiskey in pocket flasks.


  1. I love these sentences:

    Through the closed door I heard someone cry out in pain, a woman I think. There was always noise in the secure wards.

  2. I'm looking for images that make my bones hurt.

  3. Mighty Reader points out that I am ending most of my paragraphs in a similar manner, with a sort of general observation. I hadn't noticed. Also, I may discontinue this story after Friday. We'll see.