In those first days of affliction we found them banked against buildings or curled onto bunks or tucked into beds. We found them swollen and green and sometimes rosy lipped. We found them with mouths burst open and clucking in tongues. We found them drawing pigeons and ducks on the walls with their feces, with their blood. We found them by their mothers and wives who stood weeping and raving at the doorstep.
If we arrived on time we paid these women and in turn they allowed us to what they called our “mad pursuits” and if we were late, these fine women set fire to the thatch of their houses while their loved ones lay locked within or they bundled their husbands and sons into burlap bags and left them in alleyways, or carried them in wheelbarrows to the tire yards, and unloaded them into the sooty-heaps.
Alone, with the afflicted, we learned much. In those days to investigate one body meant the death of your body and so we prodded them with sticks until they deflated, cupped our ears and uttered prayers as they moaned and clucked and spat blood, and when some of us yet woke with green bulges on our necks, our arms, our bellies, we theorized the contagion must travel along the sticks, so we threw rocks from a distance, and when still we fell to fevers, to raving and vomiting blood, we understood this affliction must journey on the wind, so now we carried about us bundles of wild flowers and sage and mint and we rubbed the ashes of these, the burning stalks of these, unto the dying and the dead. And the common people in the streets begged us to cleanse their homes, to rub them with our concoctions, to cover them in soot and ash until they too seemed saved.
We considered long the nature of the affliction, the method of its travel, the shape of its appearance, and there were those among us who illustrated these as pigeon-like, fat and feathered and bulging eyes, or as beetles with numerous legs, with antennae, or as mists and vapors gone sour, and we debated the merits of these in our manner, until one fellow proposed the image of a sooty man with a hooves and a forked tail. “You see the malignancy in this black gentleman’s heart,” the fellow tapped at the chest of the figure. “You see he commits his deeds out of cruelty,” and there were those of us who asked, “But how can such a man fly?” and this fellow sketched a bat’s wings about his back, and there were those of us who said, “How is he seemingly everywhere at once?” And for this he said, only, “Perhaps he resides in all of us.”
And when the herbs failed we theorized these “microbes” could be burned and now we circled the infected and the uninfected alike with flames, and there they waited, sooty and sweating, until they too bulged and bled. And when it was said no bird died of infection we devised a mask with a long stemmed beak, and soon all peered through the red eyes of these masks, and when our masks failed we bound our faces with netting, and thus we wandered with mashed in expressions, bumping into walls, running into one another, unable to speak beyond moans and grunts, until our numbers again dropped by this affliction.
And now we understood the matter must rest within the blood. And it was said perhaps the fluid of certain healthy men, if transferred into the ill, would provide a respite, or perhaps the stuff of certain wild dogs who survived the consumption of our carrion, or those birds we considered impervious, and there were those from other regions who claimed even a mortally wounded alligator is quickly healed from all trauma, and it is said no alligator dies of infection, and even an alligator divested of limbs, or gashed across the throat, or slit up the belly, is quickly returned to health.
And now we journeyed with our rifles into swamps, observed the black-green murk for the yellow passage of eyes, and the cattails and tall grasses for the slow amble of leather. And those natives who guided our way insisted upon the foolishness of entrance into this landscape, and they gestured to the shadows, and they said such darkness is born in the belly of alligators. “There is no nightmare this creature has not dreamed,” they said. “You will find no cure for your injuries here. In his land you will die gnashing.”
And in the moonlight and the flickering of our campfires, there are those of us who agree, who say, “And if nothing comes of this but our demise?” and we say, “There seems no other method of salvation” and of this they wonder, and they say, “Perhaps our salvation comes not from… this” and they gestured to the black waters nearby, to the thrashing and hissing and growling of our prey, “But perhaps from within. Perhaps all this ruin is visited upon us as punishment” and they say, “Perhaps we have done wrong. And now the black man punishes us” and they say, “Perhaps we are all unclean, here,” and they gestured to their chests, their heads.
And many leave in the long night of hissing and terrible moans to seek now a source of infection beneath all the others, for some festering within their misdeeds. And we wait for this monster, older than all our cities and languages, to swagger forth, and perhaps we will be devoured, and all our theories for naught, and perhaps through the spill of its terrible blood we may yet give birth to some ancient truth not yet arisen.
In those days we wore white masks with long beaks for we believed they stifled the flow of microbes along the passages.
Those who were not masked choked on the fumes, fell retching, knew the strangle along their passages, the cruel hand wandering there.