The record keeper
It fell on us like the plague.
Anyone could be infected. The plague had broken out of the ghettos, its terrible fingers reached all the way into offices and jointly mortgaged homes.
Unlike the old style plague, it didn’t kill its victims in a day or a week or even in a month, although some did succumb quickly. But most of the sick lingered on, stricken (there was no doubt of the diagnosis) but hoping for a cure. The cure was not unknown, it was only unavailable. For the infected, however, the result was the same.
And every day they suffered, they moved further down the list of those who would get access to the cure if it ever became available in the future.
We could not help.
All we could do, in the end, was to put together a progress description of the disease. We collected the data, we collated and analyzed. We put together a typical timeline, and a comprehensive prognosis of what to expect in the various phases of infection, decline and terminal illness.
We called it ‘Diagnostic of the Great Plague’. You may know it under another name.
A bitter spring
She was found by a contractor from the logging company, surveying possible new locations.
How likely was it that? Logging was going down the drain. Still, as long as even one tree is logged, there has to be a survey. He was a man who counted himself lucky.
He found her on his lunchtime hike (he was a passionate hiker and exploring the forest in all its glory was one of the perks of the job), because he wanted to see the view from the edge of the forest. In fact he was thinking of unpacking his lunch there. Instead he lost his breakfast.
It wasn’t that he’d never seen such a thing before. He had. On the discovery channel. In fact, on the discovery channel, such things happened a lot.
But it was quite another thing, he had to admit, to see it in real life.
He chose this lunch spot because it was the most beautiful view point a long way round. It was also clear that most people would never have found it. There was no trail. You either had to persist until you found this special spot, or else you had to already have known it was there.
He surveyed the landscape: nice forest edge, the hills beyond logged bare at least a hundred years ago. Now the forest could grow again. Less logging, more trees living longer and seeding themselves out. After all, America had once been covered with trees from shore to shore. Except perhaps for a few peaks in the Rockies.
Something in the landscape satisfied his mind. There was a bit of everything. All combined in harmony. He liked that. He also liked the word harmony. It reminded him of church songs, and of choir practice.
So he took his lunch out of his pack and looked around for somewhere to sit down. Surveying was a great job but it could be a little hard on the feet. There was a fallen log, just about right. Hold on – it was a whole trunk. Beautifully dead and rotting into the forest floor.
Nobody would ever log around here. The forest edge was too hilly for the regular machines and the trees themselves not high value enough for specialist equipment. So, the tree trunk was rotting silently, of no use to anyone but the beetles.
Looking carefully for those beetles, he sat down and unwrapped his sandwich. He liked big, full bodied sandwiches just as much as he liked full bodied women. This one was filled to the brink with sausage meat, and a few tomatoes were buried somewhere in its innards.
Then he put the sandwich down again.
He realized he would enjoy his lunch a lot more if he followed a call of nature first.
He carefully re-wrapped his sandwich and put it back in the pack.
He knew better than to let it lie on a tree trunk, however briefly. Beetles that might shrink away from his company would rush out immediately if they found themselves exclusively in the company of meat.
Unzipping, he slipped behind the next tree, a nice sturdy old fir, quite healthy but way past its best. He leaned back a little and aimed at the roots visible above ground.
‘Watering the tree’, he thought, and smiled a little, a phrase from childhood, from hikes with his granddad who had felt a need to water the trees frequently. Not that this tree was in need of moisture. It had been a wet spring. He looked at his boots and saw the evidence.
No way was he pissing on his boots. Never. Not even when drunk and he hadn’t been drinking much for the last few years.
But now they were damp. And there was something sticking to the left boot that looked really moist and kind of juicy. Mud? There was plenty of mud around but the mud was a different, more blackish color…
He bent down slightly to see better.
And that’s when he lost his breakfast.
Here I am.
This door has my future behind it. It is powerful. As if it was an important door in Wall Street or the Pentagon. But it is a door like many others, black, with flawless veneer, four panels seamlessly joined together. Set back a little from the wall which can make it look a little creepy, as if the door was bulging out from another dimension.
Yes, it is here. And I am here.
I didn’t even have to tell myself to stop walking. My feet did it for me. My noisy suitcase has fallen silent. Shouldn’t some birds be singing? With all this greenery around? Surely the night is almost over. The birds should know that and sing. But they don’t. I have no idea why, maybe it’s because it’s fall, maybe it’s because they use too many pesticides here, maybe it’s some other reason, but if there are any birds here they are not singing.
I stand in the silence.
The door is square and black.
I am looking at it.
‘Are you sure’, said my sister on the phone.
This came after a long silence, so long that I was grateful she said anything at all.
Grateful and resentful. At least it was a familiar feeling.
‘No’, I said. I wasn’t sure at all. Sitting in the empty apartment, just two nights away from the walk to the corner. Looking at my suitcase. My foot gave it a push and it screeched a little.
‘What was that?’ my sister said.
‘Bird’, I said.
‘On the tree, outside’, I said.
My sister didn’t say anything but I could tell she didn’t believe me.
‘What about –‘ she said, and then she stopped herself.
Exactly, I thought.
I have run out of ‘about’s.
My sister made a few little noises down her throat. To assure me she was still there while we were both silent on the phone?
‘Do you need help?’ she finally said.
Do I need help?
I need help. I need a lot of help. I need so much help I could swallow a whole village.
‘With the… the move’, she added quickly.
I wouldn’t have asked for anything anyway. She should know that. She knows that. But maybe now that everything has changed…
‘No, no’, I said, quickly, too.
And it is true. I won’t need much help with the move now. It’s all done.
‘Well I think I’d better go’, my sister said. ‘The kids are coming back from school and we need to prepare…’
She stopped. Was she trying to protect me from the knowledge of their dinner plans?
I looked out at the tree and told her yes.
Night fell and I didn’t switch on the light, although the electricity would only be cut off tomorrow. The tree was half illuminated by street light, and half dark. A ghost of a tree except to one who knows it intimately, in all its moods, like me.
I stood there for a while after my sister hung up and I tried to be sure of my decision.
But nothing came.
I witnessed the terrifying lack of compassion for those stricken by the Great Plague. As if they must be secretly guilty of some terrible crime for which this plague was the punishment.
Yes, the Great Plague was shameful. Cancer, certainly, was more honorable by a long way.
AIDS was by now, too.
Access to the cure seemed random, unless it was facilitated through the influence of a powerful person. Money helped. There was some random luck. Some survived who despaired. Most kept hoping and went under.
As with every plague, there are even more who fear it than who suffer it. But this time it is a secret fear. We have no way to predict who will be infected. We try not to mention the invisible demon who can eat your life.
This sickness broke out one beautiful September, and quickly spread over the country. We were woefully unprepared.
Unlike other epidemics, however, unlike the bird or the swine flu, this plague was not met with a concerted action of the relevant organizations. Very little was done to stop the spread of the Great Plague as it hit millions, and then millions more. A few measures were in place that kept them alive, halfheartedly, for a while, as they descended into the abyss, but nothing was done to stop infection. Nothing has stopped it even now, and more people are falling to the plague as I write.
I feel like a field nurse trying to treat amputations with a handful of aspirins. All we have is false hope.
My heart is beating faster and faster. As if it wanted to be the very first at something incredibly important. I don’t know what. My heart doesn’t inform me. It just runs and runs. I can hardly distinguish the two different beats any more. It’s just boom boom boom.
My fingers are so cold they are getting numb.
The surrounding silence stirs in my ears.
Suddenly, there is a sharp sound. I turn around but it is still too dark to see. Would it be safer inside? Of course the answer is yes, that is why I am here. But my feet don’t move.
The door is black.
Then the sudden sound again. Longer, closer. A scrabbling and scuffling.
Probably a squirrel. A squirrel? No. This is the sound of a night time creature. Engaged in a fight to the death. Squirrels sleep at night. Or do they? I don’t know. Anything to avoid dealing with the door.
I thought I would cry. I thought it would break my heart, losing that beautiful apartment. Losing my home, something that was a part of me. Like others had felt.
But when the time came, just yesterday, I felt nothing. I realized that in many ways that beautiful apartment wasn’t really home. So many reasons for it to be home but none of them moved into my heart. Or so it seems. I left without looking back.
I did look for alternatives. But there was nothing I could afford. There were too many of us. And the little there was left, it had to go to the families.
The apartment, at the end, had been very empty. I sold whatever I could, although none of my possessions made much of a dent in the debt hole of my mortgage. Still, I bought myself a few months with my furniture, my clothes, finally my laptop. Oh my laptop. It didn’t buy me much, maybe two weeks. I should have kept it. Now, I have to go anyway and it would be better to go with my laptop. But I couldn’t. Couldn’t face the end. Now the end has come anyway.
I had printed my affirmation out at the library, first time ever, because printing at the library is expensive and not really encouraged, but I decided to spend the money because it was a special day and a special occasion. The printer was misaligned and so I had to read it all crooked. The first line was almost cut off but I could guess what it said. I held the paper firmly in my hand.
I thought I might review the losses I’ve had while living in this apartment. I could write the list on the library’s piece of paper. The affirmation would be on one side of the paper, and my life would be on the other. So then I didn’t make that list.
Instead I looked at the affirmation and then I repeated it a few times. I looked out of the window, at the tree, my companion through that whole phase of my life, rain, sunshine, slug and storm, but already I felt nothing.
I wandered through the empty apartment (not that it is a very long walk – just one step from one room to the next) but it looked very different already, ready for the next occupant. If there is one. Sales are not good right now. Maybe it will have no owner for a while. And the tree will not be looked at by anyone. Just look in all by itself.
In classic literature, fall is a season of decline, though often very romantic. For me, it has always been a season of new beginnings, like school and work. Fall meant get your act together. Focus. Be alert and alive. And, I suppose, in a way, I am starting a new life tomorrow.
In the morning, no leaves lay on the city streets, not even from the one tree in front of my window. My former window. As I walked towards the corner, I suddenly felt an urge to turn round and take one last memento, just one, one leaf from the tree I lived with for so long. But I walked on.
My coat is too thin. Already. My shoes are just about adequate.
The corner comes and I am past it and that is my life.
Why do soldiers get memorials? Why do we honor those who died in all sorts of disasters and injustice? And why do we not honor the victims of the Great Plague?
People in this group say it is important to remember the causes of the plague and of course they are right. We must find the sources of infection, and we must get access to the cure.
We need to understand and make connections. But for me, it’s not mainly about statistics and proof, or even about exposing the truth, although maybe for others it is.
For me, this is about honoring every single death, every single life.
He tried to look around and memorize the scene.
Not much left. Maybe some rotten clothes? Best leave it to the experts.
He never saw the piece of paper. It had long been mulched into the forest floor long ago, food for the new spring.
Nobody found the pen.
I could just stand here until the morning comes.
Or until the end of the world. Whichever happens first.
Or until the door opens.
But I’m worried about the neighborhood watch.
I didn’t take this journey because I wanted to. I took it because there is no other choice for me. Well, no, there are always choices. And there is another place I could go. But not yet, not yet. And so I took the bus.
It got to New Salem, skirting the forest to the west, in the small hours after midnight. The bus schedules aren’t made for convenience. Or at least not for the convenience of a town like this one. It’s just a place on the way to somewhere else, so we must take the bus times as they fall.
My suitcase made a bumpety noise as I pulled it along the dark early morning streets, announcing my arrival with a fanfare of nuisance. Screechy, here she comes.
I noticed I was the only one walking. I haven’t had to do that since I was a teenager. When I preferred to rely on a lift from Ronnie and the attendant awkwardnesses in his bedroom to walking in the street.
Now I walk again, like a child.
A child with a heavy, noisy suitcase.
For a few moments I thought I was lost but then I dragged my suitcase round the corner and realized I could see the central square. Empty. The war monument in the middle stood stark and ugly. The grass around it seeped into blackness. It could have been mud, or swamp, but it was just dark night grass.
I walked around the square, passing the useless mall and a restaurant, still closed. I could see the Corinthian columns of city hall, built in a time of grand expectations when New Salem was on the brink of becoming more than a place on the way to somewhere else, and next to it the library. The library opens at 10AM, almost half a day from now.
I screeched around the worn steps and looked up at the hall. Serene and sophisticated, but also slightly run down. Next to the place that shines like a gold mine, all through the night. The local McDonalds is beautifully maintained, its clean insides illuminate the city square.
I felt an old, instinctive urge to sit down and have a coffee, maybe some fries. I could sit here, hide my screeching suitcase under the neat white plastic table and wait until the morning came. I could slowly get acquainted with the cast of small town characters, the delivery men, the cleaning ladies, the shift workers, the fire and police men. If I staid a little longer I’d be among the office workers, the mothers and finally the school age crowd.
Like the last few snatched hours of privacy at the start of a holiday visit. Park the car somewhere along a fence, and luxuriously stretch your legs, proudly walk a few yards in the clean and healthy air. Guilty, but free. ‘Only visiting’, as it says in Monopoly. Even the McDonalds coffee could taste superb. I stood in front of the very clean windows, but not too close. I didn’t want to be seen looking in. A van stopped in front of the building and a few drunk teenagers spilled out. They giggled and pushed each other through the door. Inside, the place was ready. For a second I had a crazy impulse to join them, but I didn’t. I understand the risks, and I understand priorities. I pulled on my suitcase and walked again.
Past a few blocks, the houses became more suburban, with gardens and fences and double garages. New Salem, though small, has its own suburbs and outskirts and shopping satellites. My shoulders tightened, my legs got a little tired. The light never lifted as I walked towards my destination. Sunrise was a long long way off.
I walked and walked. It wasn’t easy, and I wasn’t getting used to it, but I did it anyway.
Many of the houses I passed had ‘for sale’ signs in the garden. Many had several cars parked in front, occasionally one was boarded up. Others looked normal, as much as I could tell.
I am amazed at my will to live. I always thought I would be quite snobbish about quality of life but now I am desperate for them not to turn off the machine. Bumpety bump. Please breathe for me.
Not that this grand hospital finale is likely to ever happen for me. I lost my insurance.
All I have now is the black door.
I am a little sweaty from all the suitcase pulling and from all the walking.
But not very much so. I have a strong heart.
Now, standing in the silence in front of the door, I feel my pulse accelerate.
I’m getting cold.
Cold and with racing heart I stand here.
The door doesn’t move.
The light doesn’t change.
We are all here and we are waiting.
I found her traces all over my place of work, but only towards the end, after she had gone. Did she want someone to see them? Was she hoping for a historic discovery, some kind of grand redemption? Inclusion in the archaeology of pain?
I don’t know.
Could she have foreseen the end? Would anyone else have found those traces?
It was an unlikely discovery. How many others are others out there? Others whose traces that were never found…
I only ring the bell once.
I know it is not a good idea to ring it twice. It will only cause trouble. Although nothing stirs inside the house after I ring, and even after I wait, I know better than to raise my hand again. The fact that I can't hear anything doesn’t mean that nothing is going on. The fact that I can’t hear anything could also be due to good insulation, but I know that that is not the case. I know it’s very cold inside that house.
I tell my ears not to strain.
Things have to take their own course and I can do nothing to change that. It’s up to a higher power.
Maybe my eyes have gone weird from staring at the black door but the frozen white waves of paint around it seem to have taken on pinkish tint. Maybe dawn has come?
I’ve imagined hearing steps for so long now that I tell myself I must be mistaken again but, no, these sounds are definitely outside my own head and inside that house.
There is movement on the other side of the black door.
Then I hear the rattle of bunched keys.
The door shivers slightly as the latch is pulled back inside.
My eyes need to adjust but the door is moving.
A narrow slit of dark air beyond the shiny blackness opens up.
I had forgotten that I am taller.
My eyes were preparing to look up but I need to lower them.
The small slit widens as the black door silently swings inside.
It is definitely close to dawn.
The white paint next to the black door frame glares.
I can even hear the twitter of some hardy fall birds behind me.
And I look into the face of my mother, illuminated by the pink dawn of my first day back home.
From the discovery channel he knew that it was important to stay calm.
He actually felt reasonably calm anyway. Most of his reaction had been physical. His mind was clear.
Step two was to call for help. That he could do, in fact he could do it a lot better than most people. There usually wasn’t much cellphone coverage in forests. Which was why he had a satellite phone. Standard equipment for someone like him.
He made that call very competently. Of course there was no urgency. Death had occurred a long time ago.
Step three was not to disturb the crime scene (Was it a crime scene? Maybe not but better to treat it as such). Well, he had kind of disturbed it already.
But surely forensics would be clever enough to divide his breakfast from the rotten remains of a corpse.
I think it is very sad.
I didn’t think that someone in my own family…
My poor mother.
Was it really the right thing that my mother took her in. I mean it’s sad enough that one life is destroyed, why destroy another?
My mother never had anything handed to her. She didn’t start out with a house and a good pension. My father worked all his life, and my mother created a home for him. And for us. For us when we were children, I mean. So I don’t quite see why my sister can’t look after herself even though… Yes I do realize all that but still, you don’t know my sister…
You see, she was always… although we’re not supposed to say so I do think there is a reason why it happened to some people and not to others. I don’t think it’s random. I think there’s a connection and if I’m honest I’d have to say it’s not good.
As I’m the first to say, it’s sad.
I think she was probably depressed. Those people have a very difficult life, don’t they? It’s those imbalances in their brains, I know that, they have the wrong chemicals, and it’s not their fault, it’s like a disease. In a way they are like drug addicts, not because they take drugs (well, they do, I mean it’s better if they do, they need drugs, I mean legal drugs), but because they can’t act responsibly, or do anything properly on their own.
They take more and more from others. It’s never enough. They take over your entire life. They take over the entire house.
Unfortunately I have to say that my sister is one of them.
Yes, that was before. Even before, she was one of those unfortunates. Which made us, her family, unfortunate too. And I ask you, is that fair?
Part 1: If you were coming in the Fall
I am in the small bedroom upstairs, trying to fit onto my childhood bed and trying to sleep for a few hours like my mother told me but the cold comes and joins me under the blanket. I feel the blood go sluggish in my feet and try to stuff them inside my knee caps but the blanket is too small to cover even that. Outside the window, the morning can not be held back.
As quietly as I can, I sneak down to make a cup of tea. From the last few teabags that I brought with me.
Of course I had to let my spoon crash to the ground.
I pick it up and there she is, facing me through a half open door for the second time in one brief morning.
‘I thought it was burglars’, my mother says, slim and straight in her stylish white dressing gown. There are so many possible answers to that but all I can think of is ‘no’.
My mother expects more. And all I have for her is a cup of tea.
‘Milk?’ I say, holding up the bottle.
‘I only have it fat free now’, she says. ‘You’d know that if you visited more.’
She advances into the kitchen and sits down.
I get the fat free milk for her from the fridge (she does have a selection) and put everything away neatly. The kitchen was re-fitted a few years ago and looks like a show room, white and cold. I sit down opposite her. At least I remembered her favorite mug. As I raise mine to my lips, my mother says: ‘This is your sister’s.’
I can’t help myself, I put it down.
‘I didn’t know’, I say.
My mother nods. ‘A present from her husband. So thoughtful.’
I look around. Maybe if I pour my drink into a different mug, quickly, and wash this one out…
Then I get a grip on myself.
‘I’ll get my own today’, I say. Then smile.
‘You better save your money’, my mother says. ‘That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?’
And there we are.
We both sit and drink, my mother in great leisurely mouthfuls, while I only manage tiny sips until my throat closes up.
Outside the windows, the dark day peels itself reluctantly off the night.
I nod and try to squeeze my tears back.
My mother smiles then, just a little bit.
‘I always said you could come home’, she says. ‘You’re my daughter.’ For a moment I think she’s going to reach out and pat my knee but instead she says ‘whatever it is that you have done.’ Blood rushes up and my face burns. This is why I sold my laptop. To escape this, even if only for a few more days. Well, those days are over and I have arrived here anyway, in my life of shame.
‘Now’, my mother adds, ‘I’d better get dressed. I’m sure you’ve got a lot to do.’
‘By the way, there’s a letter for you. Already. You could have asked me if that’s ok, you know.’
I take great care to wash up the mugs thoroughly and leave no traces. Then I collect my day pack from the small bedroom and run. The wind blows in through the open door as I shout ‘Have a good day!’ as cheerfully as I can.
‘Will you be back for dinner’ comes my mother’s voice from the kitchen where I can hear her moving crockery around the sink. Is she re-rinsing the mugs?
‘Yes, I’ll be back by five’, I shout.
‘Thought so’, says my mother, with satisfaction.
I close the black door behind me, pulling hard against the wind, and start walking down the street. My mother’s house is petite, but set inside its own garden. Larger residences surround it.
I am tired. If I was anywhere else, if I was anyone else, I suppose, I would sleep through this day.
But I’m not and I’m not. So I walk to the library.
I pass several joggers. Then several dogs. Then the war monument. The library is not open yet, and of course there’s nowhere to sit down, so I walk around some more, looking at the outside of the useless little mall, soaking my shoes, trying to stay away from the lure of the still immaculate McDonald’s.
This is only day one of moving back in with my mother.
The shame I felt in the kitchen feels is familiar. I felt it every day as a teenager, walking around this same small town center. The difference is that then I knew exactly when I would leave that home.
Now it’s my mother or the open road. With soaked shoes. And I hope and hope it will soon be 10 o’clock.
The librarian has sized me up with one look.
‘Terminals over there’, she says, waving me to a bank of workstations arranged in two facing rows set up in a kind of central clearance between the old fashioned library shelves. Most of them are already taken, by people who know the system here. The chairs you have to sit on are very high, like bar stools, and require a good sense of balance, maybe to keep us alert, or at least awake, or perhaps to weed out the unfit straightaway. As I sign in for my first 60 minutes (then I will have to take a mandatory 60 minute break before I can sign in again), my mind throws me a weird memory echo, feelings and images from starting a new job. But this situation is new. I have nothing else to compare it to. For a second I feel removed from myself and my own life. I look at it from a distance, and get a sense of how outrageous and extraordinary this all is. Then I adjust my balance on the library stool and get on with it.
The man next to me looks very old. He wears his coat inside, although the library is pleasantly warm, and he protects his screen from nosy onlookers with a thin sheet of paper stuffed sideways into the partition between the wooden panels. Maybe he’s doing something illegal. Maybe he’s looking at porn although porn is supposed to be blocked from library access. He mutters to himself. Is he one of those who live on the streets, prematurely aged, the library the only building he enters in the course of his day? Is that what I would be like if I hadn’t gone back behind the black door?
I turn away and, as always, the first thing I do is to search for my affirmations. My mouse wanders automatically to the bookmarks but then I remember that I am now homeless on the computer, too. It doesn’t matter. I have no trouble finding that website, I know it like my own heart.
Trust. Love. Trust. The universe will provide. I feel calmer already. Purge myself of negative thoughts.
And… click! I focus my energy.
As my shoes start to dry I feel the abundance.
My affirmation of the day reminds me of the power of positive thinking. Don’t give up. Those who are addicted to negative thoughts will fail. It’s up to me to survive.
With almost warm toes and renewed confidence I approach the familiar, frightening task of the day. I tell myself firmly that I will follow my program, I will find and send out my quota of letters, and then one extra on top, so that I am ahead of the curve. I will. Luckily, all the material I need is stored in the clouds. I am well prepared.
Never mind that in two years I’ve only had five answers, all of them negative. Maybe today is the day.
I collected the names.
I got stories, emails, snippets from the few local newspapers still available. Word of mouth from social media about someone who may have fallen off the radar.
A slow, time consuming task, but any act can be an act of honor. Sometimes that helps. Sometimes it overwhelms me.