The outskirts of London, England
Alice wrapped the poultice of stewed onions and garlic in a square of linen and carried it to Edward’s bedside. The fleshy knob growing out of his neck had turned a shiny yellowish-purple, large as a goose egg about to burst. His hair was a disheveled wet mess, his pillow drenched with sweat. A pungent smell hung in the air, vaguely sweet like rotting apples.
“Rest easy, brother,” Alice crooned as if to a wee babe, even though Edward was two years her senior. “I am not leaving.” Not that leaving would be possible. Plague was rampant in London, and only the wealthy bearing a certificate of good health signed by the Lord Mayor could exit the city.
Alice laid the soggy packet aside and drew two tail feathers plucked from a live chicken out of her pocket. These she placed over Edward’s swelling and covered them with the poultice to draw out the poison. He lay silent now, his breathing shallow and rapid. She was glad for these plague remedies and protections from Widow Maud who also prescribed the wearing of dead toads and application of powdered unicorn horn. Dead toads were readily found along the muddy roadways, but neither Alice nor Maud knew where to obtain powdered unicorn horn, much less find a live unicorn.
Alice knelt next to Edward’s bed. She folded her hands and rested her head on them. The church taught plague was sent by God to test and punish His people, and the clergy preached repentance.
“Dear God,” she began, “please forgive Edward his sins and take the fever from him. He sorely repents...” Alice hesitated. She tried to speak honestly, but the words stuck in her throat. What sins had Edward committed? She lifted her head and sifted through her memory. She could not remember a one. He was an angel upon earth, as was their beloved mother who was taken by plague the month before. If this punishing God was all- powerful, He was also unjust, merciless, and cruel. She would not honor a vengeful God, nor ask for forgiveness of imagined sins by a brother whose soul was as pure as the first winter snow.
Widow Maud was right – prayers were not cures.
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