A Journal of the Plague Year
by Lonely Christopher
A stranger appeared in the village square,
seeking victuals and lodging, but was rebuked
by the citizenry who feared any man
arrived from the ravaged city. The visitor
swore oaths of fitness and offered up
a certificate of health drafted by a magistrate
to prove his fettle, yet none would receive it.
He carried upon his flesh no deathly tokens
or carbuncles, but this would not assuage
the townspeople, for one of sound mind
and body may still have poison on his breath
or exude unwholesome scum in his sweat.
Therefore, those fleeing the devastation
were most unwelcome in the provinces,
known as they were to spread infection.
This intruder was denied bread or quarter,
and chased with muskets into the distant wood,
whereupon he crawled inside a shallow cave
and some time following expired alone,
but from want or the pestilence none can tell.
A physician was dispatched by the Bureau of Indian Affairs
to assess the situation. He noted that the day he arrived
twelve had perished. The mortality rate on the Reservation
was markedly higher than surrounding environs. In his report
he alleged that the local conditions were “deplorable,”
the infirm housed in sunless, unventilated dwellings,
laid out on the floor, rather than a mattress, and frequently
encouraged to sit up in an erect posture to ingest solid food,
all of which caused the onset of pneumonia, resulting in death.
He witnessed a woman who had been thoroughly convalescent
before she was brought by a medicine man into a closed space
filled with smoke with a wet cloth put over her face,
which caused her to relapse and die from pulmonary edema.
Alarmed, he shared with the tribe his professional medical
opinions and recommendations, which they swiftly rejected.
As the deceased woman’s sister told him, her people had suffered
from fatal illnesses—plague, smallpox, diphtheria, malaria, typhus,
tuberculosis, now influenza—since the coming of the white man.
The problem and the solution cannot be one and the same.
I feel like this is happening
to somebody else who looks just like me,
has the same name, but is not me;
somebody who can’t face
an undefeatable diagnosis,
who cries too much
and chases underground treatments
(toxic slime, secret infusions in church basements)
because he wants more time,
and I wake up feeling terrible
for this identical stranger
who can’t believe he is dying.
then all at once.
I’ve already seen this happening,
I know how the story ends,
every detail, my closest friends:
nausea and withering,
the smell of collapse,
fevers and dementia,
bile and shit, I’ve watched
them waste away
all the while
knowing, “I’m next.”
All my dreams as a kid
have fallen to their knees.
What is this mind I carry in this body?
Where is this body going?
I wish I could leap out of my skin
and run away or explode
Suddenly I’m a window
without walls because
nothing will contain this.
When I die, no memorial
give me a demonstration.
The Department of Homeless Services moved
hundreds of their residents into empty tourist
hotels during the lockdown to prevent the virus
from spreading in their crowded shelter system.
Certain locals immediately complained about
this arrangement, alleging that the homeless
population wandered aimlessly on their streets,
menaced pedestrians, urinated and defecated
in public, and sold and used hard drugs in the
open, in front of children. “We are afraid of
these violent criminals, sex offenders who will
attack our community, we want them gone!”
spat a homeowner. “They are subhuman, we
need to call in the National Guard or animal
control!” The tabloids ran daily stories about
junkies on the nod, petty thefts, vandalism.
The hotelier was quoted, “This is a matter
of survival. These people need somewhere to
live safely, my business requires guests, the
city is doing all that it can.” A group of men
benched on a traffic island pulled down their
masks to puff cigarettes and sip cheap beer.
They watched their neighbors watching them,
spat on the pavement, “They don’t know shit.”
Sequestered denizens crept to the nearest shore,
wearing masks but thronged together in a mass,
to glimpse the arrival of a thin white hospital ship,
the Comfort, as it chugged into the city’s harbor,
brandishing a huge red cross, ready to save the day.
We were exhausted and something felt monumental.
Weeks later the vessel remained empty, a thousand
unoccupied beds, as many crewmen idle, the Navy
shrugged, offered no comment; we came to our own
conclusions. It was as if the boat were mocking us,
a hulking metaphor of broken promises, federal
diddling, murderous negligence, all suffered in stride
by a beleaguered city doing its best to survive.
Streets abandoned except for screeching ambulances,
at dusk people leaned out their apartment windows
to bang pots and pans together, making noise for
the doctors, nurses, service workers, everyone
who couldn’t afford to stay indoors as hundreds
died each day. Emergency rooms and intensive
care units overflowed, religious neoconservatives
built a tent hospital in the middle of Central Park,
prisoners dug mass graves, schools dispensed food,
all the while a vacant craft loitered in the river.
Until one day it was gone. Nobody gathered to
watch its ignoble departure, like a cruel mirage
it simply vanished. We had other problems to
attend, and soon the whole debacle was forgot.
We have to fight for our lives.
If this threat doesn’t rouse you
to anger, fury, action,
we’re all doomed. Gay men
will cease to exist
and your politicians,
family, friends, your church
will allow it to happen.
They want it to happen,
they’ve been waiting,
and the only thing that can stop it
is standing up
and pushing back
with everything that we’ve got.
Many of us are dying
or already dead. Over a thousand
have been counted with this syndrome,
and the numbers keep climbing daily.
That’s only the serious cases,
those ravaged by opportunistic infections,
nobody knows how many people
are really affected, walking around
with swollen lymph glands,
or fatigues doctors don’t
know how to label.
It could already be there,
latent in your own body,
and it’s spreading
because nobody understands what’s going on.
The cause remains unknown,
there is no cure,
there are no answers,
but hospitals are filling up,
there have been suicides.
Why aren’t you scared out of your brain,
running screaming in the streets for help?
When the times comes,
will you simply lie down in the road
like a sick dog, and die?
It could be you,
all it takes it one wrong fuck.
We’re alone with this sickness;
since it is our community
being decimated, at best
the rest of the world’s disinterested,
at worst, they welcome our demise.
No money for research, no welfare,
The mayor’s out to lunch,
he’s in the closet,
doesn’t want to be associated
with the plight of faggots,
to his suffering constituents.
His silence is murdering us.
Our own inaction
will be the end of us.
We have to get real, and get tough:
it’s time to panic.
I don’t want to die
I don’t want to die
we have to fight.
Her sister succumbed after they heard the news the war was over.
The entire campus was quarantined, students dropping like flies.
She was attacked by a slight case, compounded by grief, feverish
nightmares that she had infected her sibling and ended her life.
There was a rally in the commons to celebrate the armistice,
despite the faculty’s consternation and directions from the
Board of Health, this activity was tolerated considering the
momentous circumstance, though the weather had turned,
provoking a chill in some attendees that grew quite serious.
It was silly of them to disobey orders, but the town was gay,
you could hear yelps down the road, celebratory gunshots,
the gymnasium had already been fitted into a makeshift
infirmary and some patients even clamored at their windows.
By the next year the toll was in the millions, staggering.
She had fully recovered, completed her training, now worked
as a nurse for the Red Cross in a rural pneumonia ward
that served African American veterans. The grippe was
tearing through them. “We’re a corpse factory!” a girl
clamored. The charge nurse took her aside to upbraid her,
“You listen to me: people are born here, and they die here.
We can’t do anything about it. If you spend your life crying
over everyone who kicks it, you’ll never get your work done!”
She ordered the poor lass to wheel the corpse of her latest
charge down to the morgue, but when the young attendant
opened the door, the room was so full of cadavers, several
of them spilled out into the hallway. She went white as a sheet,
ripped off her mask, screamed, “I just can’t take it any longer!”
Nobody could squeeze the bodies back into their room.
A mountebank who plied his trade near the dockyard,
selling physic and sundry unctions to the desperate,
claimed that he might detect the presence of distemper
by having one breathe upon a pane of treated glass
which then would be subjected to a microscope.
The affliction could be distinguished, said he, by the
presence of dancing particulates in the shape of
dragons, devils, snakes, and suchlike noxious creatures.
As for the instruments required in this experiment,
the charlatan admitted he possessed them not
nor could they be procured conveniently, given
the arrested state of commerce thereabouts.
Many of his customers yielded to the illness,
despite the preventative salts and perfumes,
and watchmen were set upon their homes
so they could journey no more into the public.
Thus the contagion spread among families,
who moldered, wailing and cursing, in their beds,
whose corpses were then wrapped in carpets
and thrown into the passing dead-cart
on its nightly rounds throughout the parish,
terminating at the churchyard, where
the ghastly load would be deposited in
an unmarked pit by hardhearted sextons.
The thoroughfares and alleys were empty
of all commotion beside the conveyance
of remains, for many took flight at the outset,
while those lacking the means of escape
dared not venture into each other’s company,
and for the rest: they await the judgment.
Those who were spared from the sickness,
including they who left and returned when
it had abated, were later that baneful year
subject to and devoured by a cleansing fire
that rendered the heart of the city to ash.
Lonely Christopher is author of poetry collections Death & Disaster Series, The Resignation, and In a January Would, the story collection The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse, and the novel THERE. His plays have been produced in Canada, China, and the U.S. His film credits include several international shorts and the feature film MOM, which he wrote and directed. He works for homeless queer youth and lives in Brooklyn. lonelychristopher.com