A Godless Time

July 4, 2008
I had seen some very filthy places in my life, but this town was by far the most repulsive. I was nearly to my knees in mud and grime. The recent rainfall had washed over the layers of dust on the road, and now it was just a cesspool of all things disgusting. I was jostled unceremoniously between a man with a rather starved-looking pig and a cart filled to overflowing with bodies. A few limbs brushed over my arm as they passed, but the most frightening thing of all was that I was accustomed to this already.

I had been there for a while, finding it the best place to make money at the time. People were so desperate for a cure that they would pay anything for anything. All I had to do was mention that I knew a way, and they would come running to me with all they had. It was laughable, because they hadn’t realized that despite my efforts, there hadn’t been the slightest decrease in the number of corpses lying scattered amongst the mud and feces. They had run out of places to bury them, so they just lay there, deteriorating, people passing by as if they were nothing but grass.

The woman who had called me was one of the most desperate I’d seen in a while. She clawed at my shirt on her knees when she saw me exiting one of her neighbor’s houses. She offered to pay me such a large sum, I didn’t have to think twice before answering her. The body of a man lay outside her door, looking disturbingly as if it were just sleeping. When I arrived two hours later as I’d promised, she was lying alone on the cot in the corner, her eyes red and glazed over. Her dress was tattered, and her hand clutched the fabric by her abdomen loosely. The round bone on her wrist protruded sharply. She looked thin and frail, ghostly pale. I might have mistaken her for just another corpse, if it hadn’t been for the rising and falling of her chest. She was young, and at one time she may have been beautiful, but at that time I couldn’t have said that with certainty.

It was a moment before she noticed me standing there. She blinked suddenly and jerked upwards. She just sat there a moment, struggling to refocus her gaze on my figure. When her eyes finally settled on me once again, she spoke hoarsely. “Doctor… you’re the doctor right? Please help me—do whatever you can!” She was gripping my shirt again, and I pulled away from her grasp, wanting to keep my distance.

I smiled as I had done on countless previous occasions. “That’s my job. Now lean back and relax while I have a look.” I propped her up against the wall behind her and ignored her mutterings of gratitude. I rolled up her sleeve and winced, dropping her arm. It was covered with large purplish swellings, shining with pus. She inhaled sharply as her arm hit the cot, and I could tell by the way she bit her lip that the pain was close to unbearable. I’d seen the symptoms too many times before: the fever, weakness, and those awful swellings. I’d give her three more days.

“It’s not as bad as I’ve seen, I’m sure you’ll be better after some treatment and sleep.” Long sleep. The look of relief that washed over her features gave me a pang of guilt I hadn’t felt for some time. I made her a tea of common herbs and called it medication. She was too weak to drink it herself, and I had to tilt the cup gently to her chapped lips. She barely choked it down.

“My name… is Elena.” She mumbled between sips. “And this one… I don’t know what his name will be. Or her… but I feel like it will be a boy. That’s why I need to live, see. So he lives and…” Her voice faded into a few incoherent syllables, before she fell asleep against my shoulder, her lips still resting against the cup.

I lay her down gently, wondering if she would wake again. I busied myself with counting the money she paid me. It was probably most of the money she had. What a poor, foolish woman. Even if she did live through this disease, she would probably die giving birth to that child. Then the child would scream alone until he didn’t have the energy to scream anymore. Then the two of them would sleep, side by side, along with all the other bodies that littered every place I had seen.

Elena slept restlessly for nearly a day, occasionally muttering in her sleep. When she finally woke, I was sitting in a corner, falling in and out of a daze.

“Doctor…” I heard her rasp from the cot, and immediately stood and strode to her side. “Am I getting better?” She asked with a weak smile as I approached.

I smiled in return as always. The purplish swellings were now turning a blackish color, and her face was paler than before, looking almost yellowish. Despite all the sleep, she appeared more tired than before, and looked like she was fading. Slowly, painfully, flickering away. “Yes, I can see the signs of recovery everywhere.”

“Good, good…” She turned her gaze up towards the ceiling, her hands falling to rest on her stomach. I saw a swell there that I hadn’t previously noticed, suffocating there under her folded fingers.

I took her wrist and held it to a bowl. I retrieved the knife I carried with me and posed it by the vessels protruding from the bony arm. Swiftly and smoothly I slit the skin, watching her insides gush out as she gave a cry of pain. The blood was as sick as the rest of her, swirling thick and dark in the bowl.

“What are you doing?” She whimpered, struggling in my grasp, but it was really no use in her state.

“I’m bleeding out the disease. It’ll help, trust me.” Her wrist went lax in my fingers, and she bit her lip again. Through my various jobs, I realized that bleeding didn’t help, but rather weakened the patient. Still, I didn’t feel guilty because I only used it on those who would die anyway. This way, death would embrace them a little more quickly.
She had fallen asleep again for a little while, and when she woke, she called me by a name unfamiliar to me.

“My name is James.” I corrected, now bandaging her wrist with cloth I’d cut from dead bodies.

She stared at me silently a moment before closing her eyes again. “Forgive me, James. I… lost myself for a moment. I thought you were my husband.” Her words piqued my curiosity. I did wonder what a woman was doing alone, but I didn’t give it much thought. I just wanted to finish the job and leave. Still, given the opportunity, it didn’t hurt to know.

“Where is he, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“…Outside.” She whispered. “I… didn’t have the strength to bury him properly… so I just… left him there.” Her voice quivered and tiny tears cut through her cheeks.

“I’m sorry.” I replied quietly. My mind flashed to the body of the man, sleeping forever outside the door. He was probably decaying by now. I rested my hand on her forehead, stroking her hair gently. “You’re not going to see him again, so there’s no use dwelling on it. What’s gone is gone.” My words sounded cold even to me, but I didn’t know what else to say. Speaking in euphemisms wasn’t among my strengths.

“No, that’s not true.” She insisted, shaking her head under the weight of my hand. “We’re just separated. He’s waiting for me, you see. He’s waiting for me in heaven.”

I scoffed despite myself. “There is no heaven. There is no waiting when you’re dead. There’s just decay.” My “good doctor” persona was melting away bit by bit, but I didn’t care. She wouldn’t live to tell anyone that I was a fraud.

“How can you say that?” Her voice came out slightly stronger, and I could feel the passion of her belief tremble under my fingers. “God will take care of us. He’ll make me better, and He’ll make my son grow up strong. We don’t deserve this. I never did anything to anger Him. Surely, He must see that. He absolutely must.”

“Do you believe that? When so many people are dying all around us, do you believe that? What did anyone do to deserve this? If God existed, He would have stopped this.” My free hand clutched the cloth I had ripped from a dead man’s back. I stripped him naked and left him to rot. He might have had a wife and children, and now he’s lying naked in the middle of the street, crawling with bugs and worms. There is no God in that.

“There’s a reason for everything.” She smiled at me as if I was the one who was blind and foolish, not her. “God has a plan for all of us.”

“To die?”

“To live. However short that time may be, we live, don’t we?” Her voice was soft again.

“We live only to die, and when we die, nothing will matter.” My response was greeted with only silence. All that talking had worn her out again, and she had fallen into another uneasy sleep. If God’s plan was to kill everyone that mattered to me, I wanted nothing to do with Him.

The musty air of the little house was suffocating, and it was the first time in a long time that I noticed the smell again. The smell of death that followed me no matter where I went. I felt repulsed, and my stomach churned with the food I’d bought with her money. I staggered out and vomited, leaning against the walls as a few passerbies turned to stare. I hadn’t done that in a while—not since my first job. I wiped my mouth on my sleeve and looked to my left. Her husband was still sleeping there, only now his face was blackened and disfigured, full of creatures that were feasting on his body. I vomited once more, until there was nothing left to spit out.

I fell asleep by the cot, my head leaning back against it. I was awoken some hours later by her weak moaning. For a moment I thought it was my sister and I jolted up. But it was Elena, calling my name weakly.

“Yes, is there anything you need?” I turned around, and sat on my knees in front of the bed.

“Am I getting better?” She asked.

“Yes. The next time you wake up, it will be over.” I reached out to stroke her forehead again, trying to coax her back into sleep. It would be less painful that way.

“You’re lying to me.” All her words slurred together and it was difficult to make out what she was saying. “I’m dying, I can feel it. I feel worse than ever, not better.

“You’re not.”

“You’re lying to me. I’ve seen my husband die. This is how it happens. Are you even a doctor?” She accused, shifting uncomfortably. My silence told her everything. She choked out some wheezy form of a laugh. “I would have died anyway, so I guess it doesn’t matter.”

“Nothing matters.” I whispered.

“He’s waiting for me.” She didn’t hear a word I said. “I can almost hear his voice. We’ll go to him, my son and I…”

“You’re hallucinating. You’re sick and delusional.” I told her through clenched teeth. It was sad to watch. It was just too sad.

“No, no. Really I’m not. Heaven’s going to be beautiful, I’m telling you…” Her voice was getting softer and softer. There was no use in trying to say anything more to change her mind. It was blind faith by definition, and nobody can make a blind person see again.

I sighed. “Yes. You’re right. The pain doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because heaven will be beautiful.”

She made some sound of agreement and her breathing became even again.
“It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.” I kept whispering until I fell asleep myself.

When I woke up, it was night, and she was cold. Outside the light of distant fires flickered, and I heard another cart wheel by. I thought about piling her on there, but then I couldn’t. So I left. I felt worn and weak, and there was an itch under my arm that wouldn’t go away. As I walked the streets aimlessly, my pocket still heavy with her money, I felt a swelling there under my arm.

I almost laughed at the irony. I was going to die. If there was a God, this was his way of exacting revenge. I suppose I deserved it, too. But that didn’t matter. None of the bodies would matter in some time. They would become part of the earth like everything else. I collapsed by the roadside, wanting to sleep again. I almost wished I had stayed in that house with that ghost of a woman and her forever unborn child. The grass was dying and there were bodies on either side of me. The sky was dark and foreboding above me, and for a moment I thought about heaven. It would be nice if they were all waiting for me somewhere up there. Blind faith was a warm place to be. With that thought, I fell back onto the ground and slept, camouflaged perfectly among the dead.

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artofthedeath said...
Sept. 21, 2008 at 1:50 pm
Your writing is like a vortex, I'm simply drawn to it. You're just the right amount of descriptive. And the way you expressed the characters feelings... It tool my breath away. I would love it if this one little story tied in with the rest of a book. Like, this as a back story or something, you know? Anyway, I like it. You are wonderful
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