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.

Slowly, y’know,

then all at once.

I’ve already seen this happening,

I know how the story ends,

every detail, my closest friends:

nausea and withering,

disappearing, drowning,

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

or disintegrate.

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,

no intervention.

Unaffordable drugs,

inaccessible healthcare.

The mayor’s out to lunch,

he’s in the closet,

doesn’t want to be associated

with the plight of faggots,

completely useless

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.