by Saadya Lebens
First came the stench, the reek of something that was once alive, rotting. Then came the clatter, the bumping, the sound of something with wheels rumbling down the cobbled roads. Then came the light of a hooded lantern, a dim halo that spoke of cheap oil. Then came a large wheelbarrow, heaped with corpses, and a man in an avian mask pushing it. The bodies that had been haphazardly thrown into the wheelbarrow were covered in blackened bulbous swellings, most leaking a rancid-smelling pus. Some of the bodies were fresh, others falling apart.
The man pushing the wheelbarrow wore a black cloak. The beak of his mask was filled with strong-smelling herbs, but even they could not fight off the stench of the black death. His name was Hugh. The year was 1351. The end of the world, as far as Hugh was concerned. That was what any priest worth his breeches was saying. People were dropping dead wherever you looked.
The streets of London were filthy, covered in excrement, spit and other unsavoury things. The air was smoky and oppressive, and the lights were out. A body slumped in a back alley. Hugh walked over to the corpse, retched, and hauled him onto the wheelbarrow. And as the sun began to peek from underneath the world, waiting for the moon to retire, Hugh pushed his wheelbarrow. It held around a dozen corpses by now. He pushed it to a church, pushed it to the graveyard and pushed the rancid bodies into a massive pit.
The pit was deep, though you wouldn’t be able to tell, as the corpses layered up to the top. Hundreds of them. Glazed over eyes, blood-soaked clothing, pus leaking from the swellings. There were countless hundreds of these pits, all around London.
Hugh walked back to his home, and as he did, the people he passed drew away from him. Mothers held their children close. Everywhere Hugh looked, distrustful eyes stared back. Tired and horrified eyes.
He knew what they said about his kind. They came at night, taking your loved ones.
But Hugh could imagine what it would be like without his sort. Streets piled high with rotting corpses, more and more people getting sick, adding to the piles of death. It wasn’t as if Hugh enjoyed his work. But people would be people. Always needing a scapegoat.
As Hugh reached his house a group of young men at his door looked up. They held knives.
“I don’t want any trouble,” Hugh said as he took a step back.
One of the men grabbed him and slammed his face into the door. There was a snap as Hugh’s mask splintered, and as Hugh stumbled, two men grabbed him from behind, as a third brought back his blade to thrust.
Hugh shoved himself free and ran to his door as the third man stabbed at empty air. Hugh opened his door, darted inside, and bolted it. He heard the thud of the men’s footsteps outside. Then silence.
He sat down and removed his shattered mask, revealing a gaunt and malnourished face with sunken brown eyes. Herbs and flowers fell from the black wood as he laid it down on his table.
He looked down at his hands. The tips of his fingers had blackened. This was what he had feared since the black death began. All men fear death, and for a moment Hugh felt a wave of dread. But no, there was work to be done. He had known the dangers of his occupation. He had dug his own grave. Somewhere deep down he knew this was coming. And it was a price he paid willingly. There was work to be done.
First came the stench, the reek of something that was once alive, rotting. Then came the clatter, the bumping, the sound of something with wheels rumbling down the cobbled roads. Then came the light of a hooded lantern, a dim halo that spoke of cheap oil. Then came a large wheelbarrow, heaped with corpses, and a woman in an avian mask pushing it.
Alice walked the darkened streets and she saw the end of the world. The end she was trying to fight. No matter what her family thought of it. Far off, she saw a corpse hunched over an empty wheelbarrow.
A man in a shattered mask.