’Twas the thirsty east wind that worried us that summer. It seemed to invite that grisly visitor, the plague, to linger on. Our city had lost 70,000 souls over the past year; now doomsayers predicted sorrow in a conflagration. Warnings to repent or burn, however, went largely unheeded.
I wonder if repentance would have halted the devastation. Who but God can say?
That morning, noxious fumes slithered through the cracks around my window and woke me in a sneezing fit. Two rooms away, I heard squeaky gasps from Isabel’s throat. From next door, frantic tones from my mother.
Our neighborhood had not prepared for the inferno that began with a small bakery oven fire. The Lord Mayor of London himself declared that a woman could piss out the ensuing flames.
What a fool.
I fumbled for breeches and shirt in the scant morning light. Willing myself to make haste, I buckled my shoes over bare feet as acrid air assaulted my throat.
Outside my window, cart wheels squealed and indistinct voices joined in an acrimonious chorus. When I pulled back the drape, I spotted a woman holding a baby. With two squalling children latched to her skirt, she stuck in place like a ship in the iced-over Thames during wintertime.
“Help me!” she wailed.
“Help yerself,” a man barked back. “We’ve our own to tend to.”
Rushing to the door, I yanked hard. My mother fell headlong into my room, yelping. When I reached to help her, she slapped me away. Only then did I spot her yet unfastened shirt and bodice. I averted my eyes while she cinched herself in.
Isabel stepped through her door as I entered the common room, fear squinching her face. Her long, loosened hair fell in unruly auburn curls over a brown bodice, transforming her into an autumn oak canopied with rusty leaves.
Father burst through the main door, slamming it against the wall. “The wind has changed. They reckon we have only three or four hours to escape the flames. We must evacuate.”
Below, bedlam had replaced the still, almost ghostly realm our street was a year earlier, when the plague stretched out its terrible tentacles. Householders emerged carrying wads of clothing, pillows, linens, and other sundries. The bumping wheels of approaching carts, wagons, and carriages added to the growing clamor.
“We’ll load what we can in our small wagon,” Father said.
Mother scanned the room while Isabel rushed to pull the pewter candlesticks and serving tray from a shelf. I raced to the clock case to retrieve the family moneybag.
Mother dropped to her knees and began to roll the large Turkish carpet, for whose intricate swirls and multicolored designs she had scrimped for months.
“Leave it,” I protested, laying a hand on her shoulder. “There are more important items.”
“Daniel,” she snapped, jerking from my touch, “what we take is not yours to decide.”
Her ire sprang from more than the impending loss of her treasures.
“The boy may be right, dear,” Father said.
The boy. They used the appellation as an insult; a man of twenty is an adult by any measure.
“Honor your father and mother,” Reverend Harrington would have reminded me. I held my tongue.
“Crowds will soon choke the streets,” Father added. “We’ll each take an armload and flee.”
Mother’s mouth fell agape. “But, the linens! And our clothing! My new wig.” Her gaze darted around the room like a frightened mouse. “The mirror. Please.”
A moment later, Father’s jaw hardened with decision. “Daniel, take Isabel downstairs. Gather the recipes, knives, spices, pots, and pans. And that large chunk of parmesan. It cost me near a month’s earnings.”
“But you and Mother?”
“Your mother is right; we’ve worked too hard to sacrifice everything to the flames and our cart won’t hold it all. I’ll hire a wagon or find a safe place to secure our valuables.” The insidious fumes strained his voice. “Go. Save what you can. We’ll meet you at your sister’s; surely the fire won’t reach that far. Now be off!” His tone left no room for argument.
I shoved the moneybag into his hands and Isabel and I raced to the door, not bothering with a lantern, which would slow our steps. Only the opened door of our flat lit the way as we hastened down the narrow staircase to our family cook shop below. The miasma from burning timber, tallow, and thatch roofs stung my eyes and blurred my vision.
Barreling around one dim corner, my foot slewed and I careened into the wall and bashed my head. A brilliant burst detonated behind my eyes like exploding gunpowder. Isabel shrieked as I crumbled onto the begrimed landing. I eased around to gain my bearings against the wall. When I turned toward Isabel’s scuffling steps, one of her outstretched fingers poked my eye. Another plunged into my mouth, where the nail scraped over my tongue and jabbed my inner cheek. The taste of raw onions, still pungent after she diced them the evening before, blossomed in my mouth.
“I… Forgive me, Daniel.” She shuffled backwards, her feet scratching over fine grit.
I gingerly examined my forehead, already swelling into an egg.
With the wall as a crutch, I labored up, squelching a groan. “Come.” I took her hand and guided her as we descended the final flight of steps.
Daylight filtered through the huge paned glass in our bake shop. Since houses opposite made the space dim even on the sunniest of days, we often kept lanterns burning to aid us as we labored. Today, urgency required us to forgo added illumination.
No matter; the shop was well-ordered and we knew it well. Our difficulty lay in deciding which items to take. I skimmed the shelves holding kettles, fluted molds, baking pans, and serving platters. These, along with the oven, charcoal stove, and hot plate, would remain, along with cured rabbits, lambs, and birds.
What else could we leave without sacrificing the business? Father hailed from tiny, unpretentious Liddington Parish, but his culinary specialties had made our kitchen, within a rooster’s crow of prosperous Lombard Street, a favorite of wealthy patrons. When people heard trumpeters and fiddlers, they knew one of my family’s feasts would soon adorn a rich man’s table.
I made haste collecting several large coils of sausages and costly spices while Isabel stuffed measuring cups, spoons, forks, knives and other utensils into an empty flour sack.
“I’ll fetch the cart,” I said. I hoped someone hadn’t absconded with it. “Can you manage here?”
“No! Please don’t leave me!” Her voice quavered.
“It will take me only a few minutes, Isabel.” The cart was in the shed one room away.
After our return to London, Isabel had come to live with us as a plague orphan who had witnessed the painful deaths of her parents and five siblings. She had always been compliant, anxious to serve our family. I willed her to be so now.
Shouting, banging, and clattering from outside pulled at me and I turned from her. “Stay here and continue packing.”
“Don’t leave me here alone!” Panic shuddered her words.
What was I supposed to do? Mother should have come. Isabel had become another daughter to her. After what my mother saw as my rebellion, she welcomed someone else to coddle. I failed to convince her and Father that I had become a better son, a better person.
I had no inkling how to tend to a girl four years younger than I. That she was the sister of now-deceased Zephora also made me ill-at-ease. Daily, Isabel’s copper hair and moss eyes, the way her skirt swished from side to side as she walked, and the fullness of her lower lip reminded me of Zephora. Many times, I retreated from Isabel’s presence. Shame and guilt over my past wrongs coupled with attraction toward her unsettled me.
Now, no such battle waged. She was a child who needed to keep her head. “We’ve only a short time.” I strode toward her, making my voice stern as a driver’s to his horse. “If I don’t go, we won’t make it out of here alive.”
Her face contorted like a walloped child’s before breaking into tears.
I had only made our situation bleaker. Should I grasp her hand and pull her along? Leave her despite her tears?
I fisted my hair and yanked in frustration. The foolish girl was endangering our lives.
Then understanding rolled over me like a wave. When Isabel was last alone, her mother, following the rest of her family, had exhaled her final breath. Isabel remained in the coffin of their flat for an entire night, afraid to stay, more afraid to leave.
Fear of abandonment was stealing Isabel’s sense.
I squatted and took her hand. “Forgive me, Isabel. I should not have spoken harshly.”
She looked up, her face desolate.
Though one part of me wanted to embrace her and declare I’d not desert or allow her to perish in the flames, such an act was too foreign to us. Instead, I gentled my words further. “If I lock the door behind me, do you think you could continue without me? I promise to be quick.”
Her slight nod gave me leave. “I’ll be back soon. Don’t worry.”
The street I had known since birth had transformed into a foreign landscape. Every soul had descended from their rooms to the cobbled road and now clashed and sparred with others like hungry wolves at the body of a fallen roebuck.
While his mother hoisted bulging bags onto a low cart, a small boy with a bare bottom plopped onto the muck- and manure-strewn street and wailed. An arm’s length from him, a balky horse pranced in place. Unaware of the child behind the animal, its owner jerked the horse’s harness. “Settle down there, Prince, er ah’ll cuff ya.” When he swatted the horse’s nose, the animal reared up, kicking the air with his front feet and dancing backwards toward the boy.
“E-ow, stop yer caterwaulin’,” the tyke’s mother squawked, bending and lifting him. When she spotted the horse, she toppled with the child in her arms. Her head clunked against the handle of her cart and she released the boy, sending him tumbling.
When I rushed to help, the woman yanked her arm away and pummeled me with a clump of curses I had never heard from a woman. She pushed herself up, rubbed her head, and hoisted her wailing son onto her hip before waddling away.
Movement from a window above drew my gaze heavenward. Constructed as they were, the houses’ top floors leaned far over the street. I could see no flames, but giant fingers of smoke slithered through the sky.
I flew to our storage shed. In front of the door lay a thick stick, broken in several places, the pieces scattered like crude chessmen after capture by an opponent. One stubby rod still stuck in the crack between door and wall, straining the rusty padlock. I had convinced my father we needed it to protect the wagon we used to convey delicacies to clients. “It seems an unnecessary expenditure,” he’d protested. “Who would want it?”
The wagon had not been my true concern. Our shed had become a perfect hiding place, our cart, covered with thick blankets, a perfect bed for frolicking with Zephora and another young woman, Blandiana. Why had the good Lord blessed me with looks that beguiled them to part with the treasure they should have guarded until marriage? Why had my parents not chided me for these indiscretions?
I pushed the thoughts aside, thankful for the strong lock.
Inside, I found our cart undisturbed. As I yanked it over the doorsill, its wooden wheels jolted in protest.
Isabel and I loaded on cookware, utensils, towels, a supply of fresh yeast, and other essentials. After securing the contents, I stretched several of our finest tablecloths over.
It was glad Mother couldn’t see this misuse of her linens.
* * *
“Daniel,” Isabel pleaded hours later, “can’t we stop for a moment?”
In fact, Isabel had already stopped. “Get yerself moving up there,” a man behind us barked. Others snapped agreement.
Entrapped on every side, the swelling mob clamored to escape the blaze, which sometimes leered at us over buildings as it rumbled, creaked, cracked, and roared. The stench of sweat-glistened bodies mingled with waste from man and beast was enough to offend the foulest demon. Constant hacking rose as lungs belched out smoky air.
The frantic howls of small children who had lost track of their mothers incited the mob’s anxiety further.
My skull pounded.
Tears on Isabel’s cheeks smeared through a film of ash and smoke. At dawn she had looked disheveled; now she looked a fright.
“Let me pull alone for a while,” I offered.
Isabel had proven herself a poor partner in driving our cart. When I pushed from behind as she pulled and steered, I sometimes rammed the load into her back. She’d then stumble and we’d lose our momentum. When we switched places, her movements were jerky and the load jolted first to one side then the other. When we both pulled, the load again veered. Numerous small pans and utensils jiggled loose and clacked onto the road.
“Thank you.” Isabel’s voice was so low, only the movement of her lips told me she’d spoken. She stepped to the side and, with head bowed, began the slow shuffle required to keep up with the pulsing crowd.
I gripped the lip near the center of the wagon’s front board instead of the pull bars. Before long, my fingers cramped and bled. I then moved to the back, where I threw my weight against the load to budge it forward in small increments.
Soon, exasperation at Isabel gnawed at me. Why was she still resting? Could she consider no one but herself? Did she not notice my struggles? I felt like snaffling her by the shoulders and shaking reason into her insensible head. Did she believe danger had passed?
As I stewed and simmered, I failed to notice a begrimed shirt at my feet. Instead of connecting with the road, my foot slipped on the slimed fabric, propelling me facefirst into the back of our cart. My head smacked it with a loud thud. The tender lump on my forehead gained hours earlier in the stairwell skreighed. I sprawled flat on cobblestones smirched with horse manure and the urine of man and beast. I cursed Isabel. Loudly. When I turned, I saw her blanch and step backwards into strangers, who shoved her away, stumbling.
I dropped my head and closed my eyes for the briefest moment. How dare I let such words escape my lips? How dare I blame Isabel? Had I changed at all since falling to my knees to beg forgiveness a year earlier?
I clenched my teeth and lifted my head. Despite knowing what I should be and do, my pride declared Isabel, not myself, to blame.
Angry complaints from those behind me and the palpable fear of the frightened, tired crowd lent me no time to contemplate further.
I pushed myself animal-like onto hands and knees, only to find one hand and one knee bedded in soft lumps of horse manure. The force of the throng shifted me off-balance, rendering me unable to rise.
Lord, I prayed, please help me.
“Say, mister, ya need a hand?” A boy no older than fifteen bent over, hands on legs stockinged with holey rags. Before I could respond, he hefted me up. “Ya been pushing this cart all day?” I nodded. “Well, looks like ya need a little rest. How’s about a small bargain? Ya got any food beneath them fancy covers?”
At the price of a large slab of my father’s precious parmesan, Martin and his brother Tom pulled our wagon for the next two hours. I sliced off hunks of cheese for Isabel and me as well. Afterwards, not caring the cost of each portion, I hacked off another chunk and turned to the ragged family behind. “Have you any wine? I’ll trade you cheese for it.”
“Nay,” the woman answered. “But if you find some, tell us. We’re parched as fish washed ashore.”
Several minutes later, I saw a fellow reeling like a sailor at port after months at sea. From him I bartered for a generous supply of stale-tasting, but wet, wine.
Despite a sated stomach and throat, Isabel’s shoulders drooped as though she, not the cart, were carrying the weight of our possessions.
“I’m sorry for speaking to you as I did,” I said, leaning close. “You were not at fault.”
She blinked several times before glancing at me with a quivery smile. With my arm around her shoulder, we jostled through a bundle of bedraggled souls to catch up with our cart.
By now, ash fell from the sky in such abundance it resembled a snowstorm. Fluttering, glowing, orange flakes were harbingers of a painful demise if we failed to escape.
Later, Isabel tugged on my sleeve, turned around, and pointed. “Look.” Though the sky ahead of us had dimmed, an unnatural light glowed from behind. “We’ll never survive.”
We had not outpaced the inferno. If the wind were to shift, the flames would devour us within hours.
I took her hand, forgetting my raw skin. She winced; blisters and sores covered her hands as well. “We’ll be safe if we keep moving.” The words sounded unconvincing even to me.
Though conversations were rare and tense among the throng as we climbed to a higher, more open section of the city, an undefined hubbub arose. Below us, a great band of fire roared. Huge, fat tongues licked the heavens and spit out fiery, ashen droplets. What I had perceived as tumult among the people a short while earlier was instead cackling fire consuming our city in tremendous, greedy gulps. Strong winds blew flames from one rooftop to the next, lapping up every morsel. The vision, though far off, brought new resolve to us flee-ers.
Sometime later, I realized Isabel no longer walked by my side. Where was she? Frantic, I searched for her long before finally spotting her cayenne peppery hair, sunken close to the ground. As though Isabel were a rock in a creek bed and they the water, the crowd opened up on one side of her, passed around, then closed fluidly on the other side.
Oh, Isabel. If threat of flames couldn’t force her feet to move, how was I to convince her?
Then the family behind me hollered, “Get going, will you? Move!”
I swung around, only to discover that the boys I’d paid with cheese to muscle my cart along had deserted me. People, horses, and wagons would soon bunch up behind me.
My sister’s home was not far. Besides providing Isabel with a place to rest, I wanted to find out whether my parents had arrived at our rendezvous point. For the moment, the wind was fighting on our behalf.
If I wanted to leave, I needed to find someone with strong arms, willing to both propel the cart and guard its contents; abandoning it was unthinkable.
Throughout the day, I had seen profiteers bargain with tired folk, offering help for wages. Desperate, I called on one of these.
“Sir,” I cried out to the nearest. His scruffy whiskers made me think he’d not only missed shaving this morning, but many days before. He threw back his head in a humorless laugh. From his ragged clothing, I presumed he was unaccustomed to the polite address.
“What you want?” In the glow of the distant inferno, I could see his blackened, rotting teeth. No matter. ’Twasn’t his teeth I required.
“I have a task for you worth five pounds.” With the cart perched atop a rise with a long steady downward slope ahead, I reckoned the man could convey it alone.
His greedy eyes widened. He’d likely never received such pay, even for a year’s labor. This was not time to scrimp, though. I’d heard one householder early in the day offer forty pounds to a grubbier fellow than this.
The man glanced behind us. The grumbling, clamoring crowd imbued him with bargaining power.
“I have old and used kitchen supplies here,” I explained, keeping my words true to the facts. If the fellow knew the value of my load, he’d surely sell every item to the highest bidder and run. “One pound now and another four on the morrow will be yours if you’ll protect my load and move it along during the night.”
“One pound now and four tomorrow?” I was ready to pull out money I had folded inside my jacket when he said, “That ain’t enough. Look at this load! I’m no Samson, you know.”
Voices to our rear ordered me to either move or get out of their way. I jerked the wagon forward several steps before turning again to the man, who was watching with fascination.
“Very well,” I said. “Two pounds now. Five on the morrow.”
“Peh.” He leaned forward until he was only a few inches from me, exhaling his fetid breath into my face. “I kin find a better customer among the old ladies hereabouts. They’re more desperate than you.” When a drop of his spittle landed on my lip, I raised my sleeve to wipe it, remembering too late the muck I’d fallen into earlier.
The boy behind me threw himself against the back of my wagon. It jolted into me, nearly knocking me off my feet. I gritted my teeth against the line of curses I wanted to barrage him with and heaved again with my full strength, pulling the load forward a whole cart length.
The man strolled nearby.
“How much do you want?” I said, huffing.
“Twenty pounds’ll do it,” he said with a broad smile. “No less.”
“Twe…! Fine! Here’s five pounds.” I peeled the bill from my wad and shoved it into his hand. He was demanding nearly my entire purse, but what choice had I? “You’ll get the rest early tomorrow morning.” He considered me with squinting eyes before nodding.
While he pulled rags from a small satchel, I yanked the load once more to placate those following.
With hands wrapped in the rags, my hired hand latched on to the wagon’s pull bars and began his work.
As I led Isabel from the caravan, I wondered why I hadn’t thought of cushioning my own hands with rags.
We soon left the crowd behind and entered a calm section of the city unthreatened by the blaze.
Tomorrow, we’d trundle the cart to St. Paul’s Cathedral, whose thick stone walls offered a sound defense.
* * *
“Daniel, wake up!” my sister shouted just after sunrise the next morning as she shook my shoulders. “The fire is coming! We must go.”
“Stop!” I cried. “I understand.” Dazed, I sat up. “Have Father and Mother arrived?”
“No.” She moaned the word. When living at home, my only sister, ten years my senior, had been both careful and cheerful. Now, haggard and beside herself, I might not have recognized her if we passed on the street.
I pulled her into my arms. “The good Lord will carry us through,” I said. “Have faith.”
Her cheeks were moist when I released her.
“Can you and Thomas manage without me?” I asked, rising. “If so, I’ll go to retrieve our cart.”
“Yes. I think so.”
I wished I had time to comfort her.
“Head north towards Moorfields,” I said. “We’ll look for each other there.”
I hastened to wrap my tender feet. Walking without hose had been a mistake; several large blisters had formed and broken, and my toes had bruised black-purple. My forehead throbbed and my hands oozed despite the ointment Joan had slathered on them the night before.
Isabel barely looked able to sit, much less flee for her life. “Drink until you can hold no more,” I ordered her before we left. Weak ale fills bellies and quenches thirst. She drained two full cups then gazed at me with glazed eyes and slack jaw. Could she manage another grueling day?
I gathered her in my arms. She fell onto my shoulder and wept.
“We are yet alive. There remains hope,” I whispered. Since I could not endow her with strength, I prayed. “Our Heavenly Father, Thou knowest our troubles and weaknesses and—forgive us—our fears. Carry us through the trials ahead.” When I released her, an inkling of calm had settled onto her.
I raised up a prayer of thanks and, with a sack of dried meat and bread slung over my shoulder, we exited onto a street where mayhem ruled. People lashed out with demanding, heartless words. Bawling toddlers toppled to the ground as careless passersby bumped and knocked them over, forcing mothers to leave frantic preparations to aid their young.
Much later, we reached the spot where I’d left the cart, in front of a butcher’s shop. We only needed to look ahead to locate it. “Isabel,” I said, “let me lift you so you can look for the man with our wagon.”
A storm cloud shrouded her face. “I don’t remember the man, Daniel. I was too tired last night.” Tears bunched in her eyes.
Her words jarred me, for she was not alone in failing to recall one among thousands of miserable, exhausted, bedraggled souls.
No matter, I thought. The coverings on the cart were distinctive.
“Don’t fret.” I forced optimism into my words and laid a hand on her shoulder, forgetting my oozing blisters. I winced. “We’ll squeeze through the crowd in that direction.” I pointed toward St. Paul’s. “Keep your eyes open for Mother’s linen. It’s surely the only wagon bedecked so well.”
As we set out, I pondered our prospects.
What future remained for us if I lost the tools needed to rebuild our business? Perhaps we could return to Hampstead, where my parents and I had waited out the worst of the plague. The place was far more than a refuge for me; there I had become a new man.
My parents had not agreed. From the moment I told them of my conversion, their view of me changed.
Oho! So now I was better than they—they, who had poured out their time and energy and lives to provide me with comfort and security.
No, no, I said. It was not their failing, but my own, that exposed my need.
Need? they asked. I lacked, I needed, nothing in their opinion.
I could never convince them that, though they had lived good lives, they also needed a Savior.
Isabel’s moan brought me back to the present. We had hardly moved.
Where was the cart? Perhaps the man I hired was already at St. Paul’s Cathedral and now waited within to receive the rest of his bargained earnings. I clung to that hope.
By late afternoon, a noticeable shift in the wind made the search for our cart unimportant; now we craved only survival. The flames were nearing much quicker than we were fleeing.
As the fire’s teeth chomped houses and churches, men, women, and children shrieked. When a nearby tower collapsed like a dollhouse at the hands of a bully, Isabel’s arms flew around me and she buried her face in my chest.
I could not loosen my eyes from the coming destruction.
“Help us, God!” The words rose from a man’s lips, distinct and clear, and my heart echoed its desperation. Others wailed. I cringed at the blasphemy of still others, who dared to speak thus to the only One who could rescue them.
The flames, angry as seething dragons protecting their lairs, engulfed whole blocks of houses. Orange and white billows swirled in the lower sky then partnered with wicked plumes of smoke that blackened the heavens. We could die there, roasted like fresh-plucked chickens.
The crowd panicked and many abandoned carts and wagons in their quest to escape, clogging paths for the rest of us, who snailed one slow step after another. The only things racing were our hearts.
Later still, screams then voices then murmurs died away, replaced by a ghostly chorus of wails and moans.
Smoke thickened, wrapping us in pernicious swirls, squeezing the air from our lungs.
We inched on.
As we rounded a bend at early evening, the crowd stopped. Gaped-jawed, we became statues as flying, fiery fragments leaped across the broad open plaza from faraway buildings onto the wooden scaffolding encasing St. Paul’s Cathedral. Soon a raging fire encircled the building. Poor, imperiled pigeons, reluctant to leave their hiding places in the building’s recesses, fluttered nearby until, with singed wings, they plummeted to the plaza below. With avaricious fingers, the fire reached up to devour the roof’s timbered beams.
Then the impossible happened.
Stones began exploding from the walls of St. Paul’s, catapulting through the air like granados. Unable to cling a moment longer, lead flowed from the roof and onto the street below. Like hell and its torments, paving stones beneath the rivulet glowed. The air we had no choice but to breathe burned our lungs. The ground heated beneath us.
“’Tis the end of the world!” one woman wailed.
“Aye,” another answered. “The Almighty is paying us back for our wickedness.”
My mind bolted back to the day one year earlier, when I too had feared the wrath of God, expecting an end like this that stretched into eternity.
“Now may the God of hope fill you with great joy and peace as you trust in Him so that your hope may overflow.” Thus, with St. Paul’s words, Reverend Harrington ended each Hampstead church service to a struggling, suffering congregation.
The words at first shocked me. How, during the worst of a plague that had claimed countless lives, could the man speak of a God of hope? Whence came this joy and peace—no, great joy and peace? Was he mad? How could he utter such nonsense?
Even if hope, joy, and peace were possible, I knew I deserved none.
Many had acted shamefully during the Great Plague of London in 1665. The most heartless had abandoned their children at the first sign of plague symptoms. Others peddled “cures,” stealing money from those too poor to flee the city and too desperate not to grasp at any possible prevention. Still others waited for the sick to die before swooping in, like buzzards for carrion, to steal valuables.
But none was worse than I.
“Come, Blandiana,” I urged, tugging her toward our wagon house. I had not seen her for over a week and craved her. Besides, my family planned to leave London as soon as my father settled business dealings. Who knew when we would tryst again?
On that day, Blandiana’s playful giggles were absent, replaced by somberness mixed with a heated desire, which radiated from her face, hands, and body.
“Oh, Daniel,” she said afterwards, her tone drooping along with her head. “My head aches at the thought of you leaving.” Her farewell kiss was hot on my lips.
The next day, I had Zephora.
Two days later, I left London, never to see either again. News of Blandiana succumbing to the plague reached soon after. In another three days, I learned that ugly buboes had visited Zephora and her family.
Londoners knew the plague passed from person to person; whole families faced quarantine when one member fell ill. To protect themselves, Zephora’s family had locked themselves up, rarely leaving their home. When I held her, it was with the same arms I had used to embrace poor, plague-infected Blandiana.
How I had avoided the sickness but passed it on to Zephora, I do not know.
I might have borne the guilt of what I’d done had I not overheard three women chaffering, their heads wagging at each other, their voices fervent, as they recalled a recent sermon. I stood nearby, inspecting a loaf of bread I had purchased as though it were a crown jewel. Their quiet words flew to my ears and penetrated to my soul. Whether they meant to condemn me, I know not, but their talk of man’s guilt before a righteous God, which merited nothing but divine wrath and hell’s flames struck me with horror. Was that my destiny? When a voice inside me shouted the answer, I dropped my loaf and rushed away.
For a week, guilt over my role in Zephora’s demise stabbed me.
Then my mind rebelled the onslaught and rose up to defend me. How could both of Harrington’s statements be true? On the one hand, he waved the blessed carrots of hope, joy, and peace before our noses. On the other, he beat us with words of judgment. Why should I allow the man to torment me?
His blessing the next Sunday was akin to pouring hot coals onto my head.
“He is a liar. No, worse. He’s a charlatan, here to mock us,” I said to a fellow at the alehouse one day. There alone had I found relief from relentless, stifling guilt. “Only one who has experienced no grief can speak thus.” I guzzled my mug of beer and ordered another. My head reeled with welcomed numbness.
As I whisked my mouth with my sleeve, a man at my side piped up, “You haven’t been here long, have you?”
I gawked at him.
“Harrington,” he continued, “lost his wife, two sons, and a baby girl. The plague took everything. He knows grief, make no mistake.”
I could not believe this. Had ale addled the man?
Others affirmed the story. “Says he’s learned to trust God’s sovereign will,” another man said, shrugging. “It works for Harrington. I’ve never met a man more at peace.”
Over the next days, the words kept repeating in my mind. How could the man respond in such a way?
Had I been in Harrington’s place, I might have cursed God. But many claimed Him a God of love. Was there was a way to gain His favor, end this gnawing misery, and receive the blessings Harrington mentioned? Mayhap returning to London and helping plague orphans would be adequate penance for my sin.
I purposed to ask Harrington’s advice.
“I must have the hope you speak of,” I said. “Is my plan sound?”
“No, no, no,” he said. “God wants nothing you can give. It’s all rubbish—dung. Of worse than no value. Have you not heard what Christ will say to those who appeal to Him on the Day of Judgment saying, ‘Lord, we prophesied in your name, we’ve driven out demons, we’ve performed miracles’?”
I was confused. Men who acted thus surely earned a place in heaven, yet the timbre of Harrington’s voice disquieted me.
“He said He never knew them and ordered the evildoers to be gone.”
“But this can’t be true,” I protested. “They were good men.”
“Good men? You misunderstand, Daniel. They were not good, no more than you or I or the rest of our miserable race. Without Christ, there is no hope. Those who don’t know Him face sure destruction, shut out of His presence forever and cast into that place of weeping and grinding of teeth, utter darkness, torment, and flame. You gravely misunderstand. You can do nothing to make yourself worthy of Him. Your so-called good deeds are as a filthy, reeking menstrual cloth to Him. You can never do enough.”
The words were a millstone rolling over me. What a fool I had been, prancing along a road paved with pretty stones and lined with tempting fruit, not realizing my final destination.
But was this the truth? I wanted to lash out at him, reject his words. I wanted to tell him what I thought of his religion and his God, who offered misery and condemned people who sought to atone for their wrongdoings.
How could Harrington bestow hope, joy, and peace on his congregation and offer me only hell?
Why, despite my protests, did his words ring with truth?
Soon I broke into wracking sobs at the eternity I had carved out for myself. I did not understand such a God, yet, knowing the impossibility of reaching Him, I craved to do that very thing.
After I had spilled my soul in a salty puddle, Harrington laid a hand on my shoulder. “Have no fears, Daniel. God is gracious. Though you are wretched, He loves you. He will have you, not on your own merit, but on Christ’s alone. He paid the penalty for your sins on the cross. Your part is to renounce immorality, greed, lust, pride, deceit, and all other sins, then trust in Christ’s sacrifice for you. Only then can you partake of His gift of salvation and the hope, peace, and joy you seek.”
With parched soul, I greedily drank living water.
Now that memory collided with a raging fire, roaring with a voice of ten thousand lions.
“Follow me,” I yelled into Isabel’s ear, grasping her hand. Like two grains of sand in an hourglass struggling to find the opening from one bulb to the other, we squeezed and strained to reach the city gate. Masses of fleeing fugitives followed.
Once through the bottleneck, we faced a new struggle. As far as we could see, people filled the open fields, erecting makeshift shelters to crawl under with the few possessions they had saved.
That night, the sky was bright as day.
“It’s unseemly for us to sleep together,” I told Isabel as I crafted a tent from a borrowed blanket.
“No one cares, Daniel,” she said. Tired and dirty, she crawled inside, telling me, “They have enough worries of their own.”
She was right. No one glanced our way as I entered behind her.
Homeless and without means to feed ourselves, we refugees survived on government handouts for days.
During those nights, when the hard ground and hungry stomachs stole sleep from us, Isabel and I spoke of our lives. A conviction that I must tell her what I had done to her sister, her family, and to her so gripped me I could not loosen myself from its hold.
She remained silent as I confessed my part in her family’s deaths.
My need for her forgiveness was as tangible as thirst in a desert. After I’d waited a year or two or ten, she whispered, “I do not blame you for the sickness, Daniel, though you should have known the signs. But how could you treat my sister and Blandiana thus?” Her voice was thick and stuffed with gravelly contempt.
I had no answer or excuse. Had I been a fool to confess?
Isabel refused to speak to me the next day and the one beyond that. “Isabel,” I said to her back on the second night as we lay together. She did not answer. I touched her arm and felt her stiffen. I removed my hand. “Isabel. I’m sorry. Before God, I have repented and He has forgiven me. By His strength, I will never do such a thing again. Not to you. Not to anyone. Can you—will you—forgive me?”
After an eternity in which the darkness, silent save for the sound of Isabel’s weeping, threatened to swallow any chance of reconciliation, she rolled over to face me. “I forgive you, Daniel.”
With the kiss that followed beneath that dingy blanket, hope returned to my soul.
* * *
The Great Fire of London raged for four and a half days. Though I hunted for them afterwards, I never found my parents.
It angers me still that the official number of victims amounts to six. Six. Pah! The fire surely trapped and consumed hundreds of uncounted poor, sick, and elderly. The stench of burned flesh is stamped into my memory.
I never found our wagon.
Over still-warm ashes, we survivors returned to our homes to assess the damage. ’Twas then that true mourning came. Moans infused the air.
My family’s business had turned to rubble and ashes. Recipes were the sole survivors of the Ludington Cook Shoppe. Isabel had secured them beneath her clothing in a thick bundle.
But recipes without a kitchen are merely paper scraps. Directions to “stir in a handful of this” or “fold into the mass a cup of that” absent utensils, pots, and pans were useless.
I glanced at the ruins one last time. In places where our feet had disturbed the ashes, a tuft of scorched fabric peeked out of the blackened earth. Curious, I kicked at it and, seeing something buried in the dirt, I dropped to my knees and dug. I suppressed a shout when I pulled out the moneybag—the same one I had retrieved from our grandfather clock—still holding our family savings.
With this, my parents’ last gift to us, we built a new cook shop.
The fire was not entirely bad. The flames consumed remaining traces of the plague. Broader streets and boulevards replaced too-narrow ways. Buildings of durable, fireproof bricks replaced timber homes and businesses.
I wed Isabel soon after. We inscribed these words on our wedding bands: “Saved from flames for you.”
If my parents had lived, I believe they would now deem me a man.
Lisa Clark’s work has appeared in various publications including After Effects: A Zimbell House Anthology, Best Modern Voices, v2, The Alligator, The Gnu, Scarlet Leaf Review, Strange Fictions, and BlazeVOX. She’s the 2nd place winner of the 2017 Yeovil Literary Prize in the “Writing Without Restrictions” category and also winner of the Glass Woman Prize for fiction and the Mia Pia Forte Prize for creative non-fiction. Bulgaria has been her home for twenty years. She is currently working on a YA novel about Virtual Reality.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Out of Ashes”
Author Lisa Clark’s superbly written and well-researched historical tale takes us back 350 years and firmly sets us in the middle of one of history’s most tragic events. We applaud her attention to detail as we follow Daniel’s struggle to make it through this horrific event, and she caps it with an unanticipated ending.