From the author: Only a few fading splotches of paint remained on the rotting townhouse's front door, but whenever Lidea Stockwell saw them, she couldn't help remembering how the door had looked the day she and her family were sealed inside to live or die as God willed.
Only a few fading splotches of paint remained on the rotting townhouse's front door, but whenever Lidea Stockwell saw them, she couldn't help remembering how the door had looked the day she and her family were sealed inside to live or die as God willed. The dull red of the quarantine cross had reminded her of drying blood, while the prayer written above it made her want to scream to the heavens. Lord have mercy upon us. Plague had been ravaging London for over a year, ever since old Queen Bess died and a Scotsman took the throne. By now, it should be clear to everyone that God had no mercy in his heart, not for them.
Lidea paused outside the door and scratched away another few flakes of paint. She had been working to erase the cross, bit by bit, every time she passed by. The childish part of her half-hoped that when it was finally gone, she would wake and discover the past year had been erased with it. The part of her that was fourteen – almost a woman grown – would settle for just having her father re-emerge from his own grief. Unfortunately, the one was no more likely to happen than the other. Sighing, she steeled herself against the coming arguments and opened the door.
It was dark and dank inside, and the stench of death lingered everywhere. Lidea wasted no time in hurrying up the stairs to the third floor, trying her best to ignore the emptiness of the chambers she passed along the way. While she and her father had survived, the house's other tenants all died with her mother and brothers. No one had yet been desperate enough to take leases in a former plague house, especially not one with a resident gong-farmer.
Her father was where she had left him, sprawled across his lumpy mattress. The rest of eel pie she'd bought from the chandler's sat untouched on the table, but he'd apparently gotten up long enough to acquire a jug of beer so strong she could smell it from across the room.
"That's not small beer, is it?" Lidea demanded.
"Ish good beer." Her father took another swig from the jug. "Veeeeeery good beer."
Lidea snatched the jug from his hands, dismayed to find it was almost empty. He grabbed after it, clumsily, but she evaded him and fled to the window, where she pushed open the crooked shutters and dumped out what little beer remained.
"Blood and nailsh!" Her father lurched to his feet and staggered towards her. Within two steps, he'd thrown off the effects of the beer enough to find his balance again. Three more steps and his hands were steady enough to snatch back the now-empty jug. "That was expensive!"
"Well, then you're throwing our money away!" Lidea shouted. Spending their precious few remaining coins on beer was a pointless waste. One of their long-ago ancestors had gone to the Holy Land and returned blessed so that his four bodily humours would always remain in perfect balance. No drink could intoxicate him for long and no disease could kill him, not even the dreaded plague. That blessing had passed down the generations in an unbroken line of fathers to daughters and mothers to sons, ending with her father and with her.
"I was trying to get drunk!" Her father turned the jug upside down, seeking in vain for a few last drops, then flung it onto the bed in disgust.
"You’re done trying for now," Lidea said, scowling. "We have a job tonight – a house near Gray's Inn."
Her father matched her expression. "There is no 'we.' I have a job."
"You don't even know which house it is." Lidea went to the chest where she'd stored her dead brothers' clothes. Nicholas' breeches still fit her well enough, though she had to wear them with one of Richard's larger doublets. "Besides, I've seen their cesspit. It's practically overflowing. You can't clean it out alone." He'd more likely drown himself. And while that would certainly end his troubles, she refused to lose the last parent she had.
"You're my daughter," her father said, firmly, as if that ought to end the discussion.
Lidea began pinning up her hair, the better to hide it under one of Thomas' old hats. "I'm all you've got left. Now are you eating your half of that pie, or should I finish it off?"
When they arrived at the house, the carters Lidea had originally hired were nowhere to be found. Instead, a pair of strangers waited by a horse and cart in the narrow alley at the rear of the house. The flickering lamp they carried didn't allow her to make out many details in the darkness, but only one of them looked large and strong enough to be a carter. The other was small and scrawny, with the bowed legs of someone who spent too much time on horseback.
"Hoy, who are you?" Lidea demanded, only to be silenced by her father's heavy hand on her shoulder.
"You brought the barrels?" her father asked.
The larger man nodded. "Carried them into the yard already."
Lidea shook her father's hand off and opened her mouth to protest again, but he just headed into the back yard of the house. Biting back her annoyance, she shouldered her buckets and hurried after him.
"Papa! They're not the men I hired," she hissed as soon as she caught up with him. The yard was almost pitch black. The landlord was obviously too tightfisted to pay for proper lamps to light it, and Lidea was glad she'd made him pay their fee in advance. Still, the ghastly smell of an overfull privy was unmistakable and her father picked his way across the yard without hesitation.
"As long as they're willing to cart away the nightsoil, it doesn't matter," her father retorted. "Don't make me regret bringing you."
As if he'd really had a choice. Still, Lidea could see the wisdom of not arguing in front of strangers. And the men had left the barrels outside the privy, within easy reach, so at least they seemed to know their job. Maybe her first carters had fallen ill and simply hadn't been able to notify her they were sending a replacement team. They would hardly be the first to succumb to the plague without warning.
Her father used one of the barrels to prop open the door to the privy, then pried up the board of the privy seat and set it to one side. Lidea squeezed in after him, covering her mouth and nose with her arm as the stench intensified. The air was close and foul inside the privy, and sweat almost immediately began beading on her forehead and trickling down the small of her back. It had been a long, hot summer and while the nights were slightly cooler than the days, that was small consolation.
"Give me the rope," Lidea said, trying to breathe shallowly through her mouth.
Her father blinked at her, then made a choking sound, as if it had only then occurred to him what came next. "No. No, absolutely not!"
"There's not enough room down there for you, not when it's this full," Lidea said, exasperated. "And it's not going to do me any harm, the boys did this all the time."
"That was different!" her father protested.
"Only if you make it different." Lidea grabbed for the coil of rope that hung from his shoulder. He made a half-hearted attempt to take it back, then crossed his arms over his chest and glared ineffectually as she tied one end around her waist. She waved the excess rope at him until he snatched it from her hands.
"It'll be bad down there," he warned her. "Might go in up to your knees, or even your waist or neck, before you find solid footing."
Lidea rolled her eyes, even though she knew he wouldn't be able to see it. "Who do you think always fetched your wash water and cleaned your clothes after a job, Papa? I know what to expect." Then, before she could think too much about what she was doing, she climbed into the cesspit.
Instantly, she felt like she was suffocating, but she kept her mouth shut and didn't make a sound, not even when she swiftly sank up to her waist. Only when she was chest-deep did the mucky nightsoil beneath her feet finally become thick enough to bear her weight. She waited a few moments, making certain that she really had stopped sinking, then began to fill her first bucket.
Lidea filled bucket after bucket after bucket, and her arms were soon burning from the unaccustomed effort of lifting them over her head. At least her nose deadened to the stench, though she could still taste it in the air every time she opened her mouth to gasp for a little extra breath. She was beginning to think the cesspit would never end.
Then she dipped a bucket into the nightsoil and hit something solid.
She hesitated, wondering if she had imagined it, then repeated the motion with the same results. "Papa?"
"Tired?" her father asked, peering into the cesspit.
She was, but she wouldn’t admit it to him. "I think there's something in here."
He leaned in a bit further, but there was nothing to see, not when his body blocked the lamplight. "Can you pull it free?"
Lidea handed up the empty bucket then began groping through the muck until she hit the object with her hand. She grabbed it, twisting her hands into something that felt disturbingly like cloth, then hauled with all her strength.
Something slowly breeched the surface of the cesspit. Her father reached down to catch hold of it as well and, between his pulling and her pushing, they finally managed to haul it up and out. Without prompting, her father grabbed the rope and hauled her out after it.
There wasn't enough light in the privy to make out much, but it was definitely a human corpse.
"'Sblood," Lidea swore and her father cuffed her shoulder to chastise her for blasphemy.
"We'll have to report this," her father said, using his foot to roll the body over onto its back. He squatted beside the corpse and used his hand to scrap some of the muck away to reveal an almost entirely intact face. Then he abruptly fell over backwards. "Blood and nails!"
Lidea bit her tongue at his hypocrisy, and leaned closer to the body.
Enormous black buboes — tokens of the plague — covered the corpse’s neck
For the first time since she'd entered the privy, Lidea thought she might sick up.
"Lord have mercy," she began, instinctively, then bit her lip hard enough to draw blood. There was no mercy here, not for whoever had died of the plague and not for whoever had been so terrified of being quarantined – and dying alongside him – that they'd hidden his illness and secretly disposed of the corpse the only way they knew how. It was just their misfortune that their skinflint landlord chose now to finally empty the cesspit. A few more weeks and the corpse would have decomposed enough that no one would have ever realized how he died.
"Stay here," Papa said.
For the first time in months, Lidea felt absolutely no desire to argue with him. Instead, she stared in fascinated horror at the plague corpse as her father ducked out of the privy. He returned a few moments later, rolling a barrel right up to the door.
"What are you doing?" Lidea whispered, knowing that their voices wouldn't carry far in the night but afraid of the carters overhearing her anyway.
"We can put him in here," her father said, grimly, "and take him to the plague pit at Tothill Fields for a proper, Christian burial. No one ever needs to know where we found him."
Lidea hesitated, looking out the door towards where the house stood, silent and almost invisible in the darkness. No one knew for certain whether plague was caused by miasma or contagion or simply the wrath of God. If it was miasma – if the house had filled with poisonous air – then a quarantine would trap the tenants to die in horrible pain, like her mother and brothers and neighbors. And if it was contagion – if the corpse before her was the only danger – the quarantine would destroy them almost as surely, because without work there was no money and without money to pay for food they'd starve. Once, charity would have sustained them, but not now. Not with so many already dead and dying.
"No one needs to know," Lidea agreed, finally. Papa laid a hand on her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.
They worked silently, side-by-side, to wrestle the corpse into the barrel and seal him in. Then her father drew his knife and cut a small cross into the lid so they could find the right barrel again.
Lidea took a few moments longer to rest her aching arms while her father removed the barrel. When he returned, she started to climb back into the cesspit, but he caught hold of the rope and stopped her.
"From now on, there should be room for us both to take turns. Like partners," he said, but he made it more of a question than an order – a peace offering. "All right?"
Lidea blinked away sudden tears, afraid they might make him change his mind again. "Yes, Papa. That's all right with me."
The night seemed to last forever, but the level of the cesspit slowly dropped and the nightsoil grew older and more compact. Lidea kept an ear out for the faint sound of the bellman, chiming the night hours, and reckoned it was just past midnight when they finally needed to begin using a shovel to dig. It had to be almost three o'clock when her father hauled her out of the cesspit for the last time.
Exhausted, Lidea staggered out of the privy while her father reassembled the boards of the seat. Her sense of smell was almost dead from the hours spent in the cesspit, but she could just make out a thread of tobacco smoke come from the direction of the cart. She felt a hint of disdain for the carters’ squeamish need to cover the privy stench – they hadn't been the ones neck-deep in the nightsoil.
They were, however, the ones standing unwitting guard over a plague corpse. Feeling a bit guilty at the deception, Lidea headed towards the cart. Only one of the men was smoking – the scrawny horseman. The larger man had climbed into the cart and was mucking about with one of the barrels.
"Hoy!" Lidea broke into a trot, afraid the man had found – or was about to find – the plague corpse. "What are you-?" She skidded to a stop where the yard met the alley and stared as the man licked his nightsoil-covered fingers. Either he had completely lost his mind or – more likely and far more worrisome – he was testing to see if the nightsoil had enough saltpeter in it to make gunpowder.
"This one's good," the saltpeter man said, slapping the lid back down on the barrel. She was so busy gaping at him that she didn't realize the horseman had come up behind her until he grabbed her shoulder.
"You shouldn't be sneaking around back here, boy," he said, giving her a violent shake.
"Let go!" Furious – and a little frightened – Lidea stamped down hard on his foot and pried at his fingers, struggling to twist free of his grip. He dropped his tobacco roll to the cobblestones and cuffed her head so hard her hat flew off.
It was even odds who was more surprised. The horseman recovered first and started laugh. "A kinchin mort!"
Lidea sucked in a breath. That was thieves' cant. Whoever the men were, they most certainly weren't honest carters. She kicked her captor in the shin and tried to bolt. Still laughing, he yanked her back and cuffed her head again, making the world spin sickeningly.
The saltpeter man jumped out of the cart, now carrying a leather waterbag. "Hold your tongue and be quiet. Do you want the night watchmen to hear you?"
Yes, the watch. Or at least Papa. Lidea opened her mouth to scream.
"Get your hands off her!"
Lidea yelped in surprise as the horseman jerked her around, then went very still as he pressed a knife to her throat. Her father froze, too, not three feet away, hands still clenched into fists.
"Here now," the saltpeter man said, reasonably. "There's no cause to be making such a fuss over a load of nightsoil. You don't want it, now do you? So why don't you go your way and we'll go ours."
"Let go of my daughter, then we can talk," her father snapped.
The men exchanged glances, then the saltpeter man tossed the waterbag at her father. "Drink to the King's good health, then we'll let her go."
Her father warily popped open the waterbag, took a tiny sip, then spat the liquid out again. "Blecht!" He made as if to toss the waterbag aside, then hesitated. "Monkshood, is it?"
The saltpeter man's eyes widened.
"All right, then." Her father lifted the waterbag to his mouth again and poured the liquid down his throat, Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed over and over again. Only when the waterbag was empty did he toss it to the cobblestones.
Lidea stared at her father in confusion. If he knew it was poisoned, why had he drunk it all? Had he not wanted the men to force her to drink the poison as well? But it wasn't as if it would have hurt her to drink it, any more than it would hurt him-
Her father abruptly vomited, spewing liquid so violently it almost reached Lidea's feet. Then he just as suddenly crumpled to the ground, arms and legs twitching.
The saltpeter man cursed in surprise and the horseman's grip loosened enough for Lidea to tear free. She flung herself to her knees beside her father and grabbed his hand, certain he must be shamming. His perfect humours should protect him from even the worst poison. She wished she understood what he was planning, but at least it was clear to her that he had some kind of a plan.
"Papa? Papa, can you hear me?" His hand tremored against hers then slowly went limp as he began to throw off the poison's effects. She squeezed his hand tight, then loosened her grip again and waited for him to respond, to tell her what to do. But he didn't return her signal. Instead he just lay there, unmoving.
A terrifying thought occurred to her then. He'd spent months now, testing his humours and trying to discover a way to subvert their balance so he could get drunk. What if he'd finally found the limits of their family blessing?
What if Papa really was dying?
The saltpeter man grabbed her by the hair and yanked her away from her father. Panic seized her in a grip almost as strong as the saltpeter man's. He wrinkled his nose in disgust, as if he hadn't just been licking the nightsoil, and held her at arm's length. "What do we do with her, now?"
"Whoreson!" Lidea spat at him, halfway to tears. She tried to punch and kick him, but couldn't get close enough, so she was reduced to impotent curses. "Poxy rakehell, may your nose rot and fall off!"
"I like the mort's spirit," the horseman said. "Let's keep her."
The cart rattled through the empty streets, moving at a reckless pace through the darkness, the two thieves confident that no one else would be out at this early hour. Any other night, Lidea would have enjoyed the gong-farmer's freedom to wander the city at night, unhindered by the curfew that kept most people locked behind closed doors. Instead, she was busy searching, with increasing fear and desperation, for someone who might help her escape. They'd encountered a pair of night watchmen, prowling for nightwalkers to throw into Bridewell, but the horseman's knife poking into her ribs had kept her silent and her nightsoil-covered clothing had given them the perfect excuse to pass the watchmen unchallenged.
As they approached the river Thames, she finally had to accept that no help was coming. She was on her own.
A trio of men waited at the top of a flight of stone steps that lead down to the river and a waiting lighter, the traditional method for shipping nightsoil out of London. From the east side of the city, they only had two choices of direction – upriver, towards Surrey, or straight across the river, towards Lambeth Palace. Most nightsoil was shipped upriver, but Lidea suspected the Lambeth marshes would make a good thieves' haunt. Either way, she had no intention of willingly getting onto that lighter. She'd take her chances with the Thames's deadly current, first.
The other three men approached, two fanning out to either side of the cart. The third looked as if he was most likely their leader – the upright man. His clothes were almost new and he carried himself with a casual arrogance, as if he were the equal of a rich merchant or a gentleman.
He also looked furious.
"What's this?" The upright man vaulted into the cart and pushed his way through the barrels until he could loom over Lidea and glower down at the men who'd brought her.
"Gong-farmer's dead," the saltpeter man said, bluntly. "His girl witnessed it."
The upright man blinked, but his surprise only lasted a moment. "So you thought you'd reward yourself for stupidity by taking her as your doxy?" He spat out the words and slammed his fist down on the nearest barrel for emphasis. Lidea shifted to the side a little, trying to avoid the flying spittle without impaling herself on the horseman's knife, then froze as the light from the lamps flickered over the side of the barrel.
A barrel marked with an x.
Lidea sucked in a breath as inspiration struck. If they wouldn't give her a chance to escape, she'd make one. "Stupider than you realize," she said, the words flying out of her mouth before she could think twice.
"Is that so?" The upright man turned the full force of his ire on her.
"You're not the only one who smuggles things," Lidea retorted, pointing at the barrel. "Open it. Go on, look inside."
The upright man glared at her a moment longer, then leaned over and pried open the lid of the barrel. His eyebrows rose and he reached inside to grab the corpse by the hair, lifting it up so he could get a better look. "Smuggling the dead? I – 'sblood!" He dropped the corpse and sprang backwards. "Plague!"
All the other men echoed his cries with varying curses as they, too, sought to distance themselves from the corpse. The horseman even dropped his knife in his haste to leap down from the cart. Lidea wasted no time in snatching it up and scrambling into the back of the cart.
"That's right!" She improvised, desperately, "Why do you think my father drank poison so willingly? He was already dying!"
"Is that so?" The upright man gestured to his men. He himself made no move to approach the cart again but, after a bit of fearful grumbling, his men began to spread out and circle the cart.
Lidea snatched at the corpse’s shirt and cut off a piece to wave around in warding. One of the men neared the horse so she flung the plague rag at him. It was still soaked with nightsoil and flew well enough that the man hastily scrambled away.
Her reprieve wouldn't last for much longer, though. If she didn't do something soon, the men would get over their fear of the corpse, swarm the cart, and seize her. She could always run – they wouldn't chase her, not when there was a chance she might also be sick. But that would leave them free to do whatever they had planned – and if they wanted to make gunpowder badly enough to run around stealing nightsoil, it couldn't be a good thing. Worse, running away would leave the poor man's corpse to be unceremoniously dumped into the Thames, on top of all the other indignities he'd suffered.
But to escape with the cart, she would need the horse to move quickly. And she could only think of one way to make it bolt.
Lidea lunged towards the horse and slashed at it with her knife, drawing a thin line of blood. The horse squealed and burst into motion.
The cart lurched forward and Lidea nearly fell over the side as its wheel hit a hole in the street. She dropped to the bottom of the cart, curled up into a tight ball between two of the barrels, and prayed to God the thieves wouldn't catch her.
The horse didn't run for long, just long enough to reach the relative safety of the Strand and its vigilant night watchmen. As soon as the horse stopped, Lidea jumped out of the cart and ran to catch the horse's harness, all the while whispering apologies. She led it forward a few paces, keeping a careful eye on its gait to make sure it wasn't limping, then stopped and leaned her head against its neck, trembling a little as she realized how close she'd come to joining her father in death.
"But we're all right," she told the horse, unsteadily. The horse. What was she to do now with the horse and cart? Or the nightsoil – she could hardly dispose of it on her own and her landlord wouldn't thank her for bringing it home. Home. Did she even have a home anymore? Without her father's work, there would be no money for the rent or food or clothing. In short order, she would be out on the streets.
Completely and utterly alone.
Lidea stared blindly down the empty street, suddenly exhausted. If the upright man were to appear in front of her, she was half-convinced she would just sit down in the street and cry. She'd been so angry at Papa's despair, but now – too late – she understood. He hadn't seen her; he'd thought he was alone.
Papa. She needed to find her father. It couldn't be much harder to bury two bodies than one. And after she laid them properly to rest... after that, God's will be done. She wasn't sure she cared anymore.
Slowly, feeling like a creaky old woman, Lidea pushed herself upright and climbed back onto the carter's bench. It took her a few moments to reorient herself, but then she turned the horse towards the direction of Grey's Inn and the alley where she'd left her father.
She hadn't gone far when a figure appeared out of the darkness and flung himself at the horse to stop it. She yelped, raising the knife to defend herself again. Then, belatedly, she realized – it was her father.
The knife slipped from her suddenly limp fingers to clatter onto the cobblestones below. "Papa!"
"Are you all right? Did they hurt you?" He scrambled up into the cart beside her and pulled her into a tight embrace before she could answer.
Lidea hugged him back for a moment, heart still pounding from his sudden appearance. She wanted to scream from relief that he was alive. "I'm not the one who just drank poison! Papa, what happened to you?"
Her father stiffened, just a little, and Lidea squirmed free from his embrace, struggling to see his expression in the darkness. "I've been a fool. It shouldn't have affected me as much as it did. The drinking... the... other things...."
Other things? Had he been testing the limits of his humours with something other than drink? Lidea swallowed, hard. "Papa, have you been trying to kill yourself?" When he didn't immediately deny it, all the words that she had kept locked up inside since her mother's death came exploding out. "What were you thinking? How could you be so selfish, to leave me all alone-"
"I didn't know the poison would do that!"
"'Sblood!" Lidea swore, then bit her tongue. Had she learned nothing? He didn't need to be scolded – he needed to see that he wasn't alone. She drew in a deep breath and tried to keep her voice level. "Tonight's not what I mean. Papa, I miss them too, but can't you see that at least I'm still here? And I need my father to be here with me, not off trying to poison himself to death!"
He didn't immediately respond and Lidea had already opened her mouth to keep going before he said, "You're right, Lidea. I'm sorry, I haven't been thinking. You know I love you, don't you? I promise, I won't do it again."
"I..." Lidea stared at him, uncertain whether or not to believe him. Finally she settled on hugging him again and saying, "I love you, too, Papa." Time would tell.
"We should get moving before they find us," her father said, reluctantly pulling away from her second embrace.
He was right and Lidea shivered at the reminder of her narrow escape. She took up the reins again and wasted no time in turning the horse towards Westminster. "What do you think they wanted gunpowder for?"
Papa put his arm around her shoulders. "God willing, we'll never know."
Lidea stood side-by-side with her father at the edge of the plague pit in Tothill Fields. They'd said a prayer for the poor corpse and all the other plague victims whose families had been unable to attend their funerals. They'd followed that by a prayer dedicated solely to her mother and brothers.
As Papa broke down and cried for the first time since they'd been locked up behind the quarantine cross, Lidea had to admit to herself that maybe – just maybe – God had some mercy left in him, after all.
This story originally appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.