The Plague-House

- by Maya Chhabra -

2625 Words

When the plague returned in a rash of aching joints and toxic, pink-froth coughs, Catia did not wait for it to sneak into her family’s home. Armouring herself with sweet oils and talismans of cracked agate—nothing that exorcised fear or released paralyzed feet for another step could truly be called useless—she stalked off to confront it where it lived and died.

Between their freshly painted townhouse and the low, sprawling warehouse appropriated last month by the faceless, vaguely incompetent entity that served as Sanitation Commission, three blocks spread before her like the southern plains amidst a dust storm. The street cleaners stayed home these days, and the promenade might as well have been a gutter.

Soon slim terraced houses gave way to commercial buildings; she lowered her veil and gasped, taking in the docks’ vivid salt air and pungent fish scent. Two wiry, homesick Eldasran sailors menaced a peacekeeper, and a lanky woman, face covered, tipped a burlap sack out of her cart and fled.

No one paid Catia mind as she marched past, agate biting her left palm as she steeled herself to yank the warehouse’s hemp bell pull. No one except the burlap sack, which grunted and twitched as she stepped carefully around it. Catia looked away from the evidence; during the epidemic of ’74, she’d seen fathers slip poison into their children’s medicine, sons dump their parents’ not-quite-corpses into the bay ’til the edict requiring cremation banned the practice. That some were driven to burn the living she did not doubt, but of that at least she could claim no first-hand knowledge. Mercifully, this woman had abandoned her relative near a plague-house; Catia didn’t think the vanished figure had much to be ashamed of. At least this time, Catia didn’t have a child to shield as well. Not like last time, with Nicoletta. During plague outbreaks, Catia revelled in her infertility.

She tugged the cord and it made an echoing, tinny noise. The sack coughed, and let out a kitten’s mew—the sound of an animal, or a very young girl, in pain. Catia looked at it, at the shape of tiny, contorted limbs poking through sackcloth.

The sorceress who answered the bell found a figure dressed in bright green, carrying a small child with a crimson-stained bib. Catia didn’t think the girl’s half-Borran features, her hazel eyes and sweat-plastered auburn curls, much resembled her own. But the sorceress couldn’t see that, she realized.

“We’re full up, madam. You should take your daughter home before she gets chilled.”

“She’s not—” But the healer, callused as Catia had been by a surfeit of suffering, was already turning away. Nearing panic, she remembered her original purpose. “Do you need an extra pair of hands?”

Eyes the choppy grey of rough seas met hers.

“Take your kid home and come back quick as you can.”

This time, when the sorceress called the girl Catia’s daughter, not even the beginnings of denial escaped her.

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The child frightened Pier Antonio. Not the plague—Catia kissed him on tiptoe when he waved off her apologies for inviting it in—but the child.

“Caterina, she’s dying. We can give her a warm place to do it, and the love her parents didn’t—”

“Pier Antonio! Her mother couldn’t have known there wasn’t room.”

A quiet, blink-and-you’d-miss-it smile. “I’ll settle her while you go back. Don’t worry, I’ll look after her.”

She saw then that he stood between her and the door to their new guest-bedroom, and realized what he feared. That she would get attached to this girl, as she had to her stepdaughter.

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Before leaving, she unhooked the lucky gems from her belt and rinsed the scented oils from her sleek black hair. She put up her hair, stabbing each pin into the bun fiercely, so it wouldn’t get in her eyes as she worked. Full of old grief and new fury, she left without checking on the girl.

Half a block later she regretted it. When Pier Antonio’s daughter, Nicoletta, had sunk into a coma, Catia hadn’t been in the room. She’d been napping feverishly after trading shifts, and between sleep and the beginnings of sickness, she couldn’t recall how they’d parted.

The peacekeeper who’d earlier fended off the quarantined sailors now restrained an ashen-faced man trying to commit an illegal sea burial. She pitied the overworked woman; no one wanted to go to the crematorium, to queue for hours with the contagious dead and their soon-to-be-dead relations.

This time the corpse was indeed a corpse.

She rang the bell, its dull sound driving the survivor’s keening from her head.

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“You don’t have to worry about contagion. Everyone here who’s not magic has it, and those who don’t soon will. Good thing it incubates for a week. Well, not always, there are flash cases, which are a fucking pain. Work as long as you can, and we’ll see you get a decent, private room when you can’t any more.”

Catia nodded. “I’m immune.”

“Good. Name’s Aoife, by the way. If I talk rough, I’m just tired.” Despite her thick Borran accent, she spoke West Farren quite idiomatically. Catia complimented her and was rewarded with a glare. Realizing she’d been condescending, Catia blushed, grateful for her veils and wondering what sort of brazenness it took for North-Provincial women and Borrans to spread the intimate workings of their minds before any stranger. They didn’t all have hard masks like Aoife.

“First, if anyone starts haemorrhaging, call me. If there’s no time, use one of these charms with some of their blood, but that’s still a one-in-eight chance of survival and sorcery can give one-in-three.”

Clutching the string of charms and memorizing instructions, Catia followed the sorceress into the ward. They attended five patients together, and then she was dizzyingly alone. The blood-stink recalled her stepdaughter’s sickbed in ’74, and her own illness.

When she found her first haemorrhage, it stole her voice as she woke light and damp and soaked at the hips, her insides tearing themselves up. Forget having children—she was desperately close to having no future at all.

“Are you sick?” A fellow nurse stared.

She scrambled inside herself for a voice and barely found it, a slippery shard.

“Sorcerer!” Too quiet. “Sorcerer, bleed out!”

A greasy-haired man with a healer’s tattoos appeared at her side to stanch the flow, shooing her off to treat the others. When she had an excuse to wander over, she noticed the patient who’d been on the floor had been moved onto the mattress, where she lay curled on her side, convulsing.

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Surprising herself, Catia did not collapse on her way home, or even immediately inside the door. Pier Antonio helped her to the kitchen table and waited for her thoughts to order themselves.

They didn’t.

“How was the work?” he asked. “What do you want for dinner? We’ve got beef, half-price with all the ships trying to dump it before it rots.”

An uneasy chuckle. She knew he couldn’t say, “Catia, are you all right?” with her clothes filthy and her face nearly as green. And she couldn’t say, “I saved five lives today,” because the plague didn’t care how proud she was of her newfound competence, or how stubbornly Aoife fought to keep blood inside bodies. They had barely made a dent; the dying went on. She couldn’t talk about the sorcerers pouring out their lives, or the volunteers who, unlike her, had no protection and how they compared in courage to any of those who’d lost their lives in the revolution two decades before. Those people had only fought for independence, while in the plague-house civilians manned a barricade against Death herself. And Death didn’t care.

“How’s the girl?”

He flinched, then grew tender. “She’s sleeping. The cough is less now.”

“You don’t have to pretend, you know. You were her father, of course you miss her more than I do.”

He swallowed once, twice. “Yes, but I know she hasn’t come back.”

Catia looked away.

“If she—when she dies, I’ll join you.”

Before the plague-house, she would have exulted, “If! You said if!” Now she knew for certain that her husband was wrong to worry about her and the girl, for she had not gotten attached to any of her patients, had already lost count of the deaths.

“I want to see her now.”

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The girl sniffled and murmured nonsense as she turned over in bed. Maybe only nonsense to Catia’s ears. Maybe she spoke Borran or a very thick southern dialect. To judge by the style of her bib and smock, she hadn’t been long in the city. Catia was glad the child had got to see some of the world before she died.

“You’re not immune.”

“You never would have married me if I cared for such things.”

He rated her too highly. “I’m going to be alone. You’re all going to leave me alive, aren’t you? I get to watch.”

“Brave Catia.” The dim lamplight darted over the grey streaks in his hair. “You’ll manage.”

The nameless little girl rolled off Nicoletta’s bed. They both caught her, moving in unison so that her hips and legs rolled into Pier Antonio’s arms while Catia protected her head and neck.

Catia didn’t want to think about the speed of her heartbeat when the child fell, or the agony in her chest. She moved off to find her bed; Pier Antonio had the first watch.

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He’d had it the whole night, apparently, and Catia excoriated him as dawn washed softly over the hangings.

“You were tired,” he said.

In no mood to argue, she washed and dressed in silence. She kissed the child, tasted salt and heat.

In the storeroom that morning, looking for a disinfectant to scrub the bloody floor with, she stumbled on a cache of anti-haemorrhage charms. She sprang away from it as though it were infectious.

Except she couldn’t be infected, and everyone she loved could. She thought of Pier Antonio saying, “I’ll join you”; of the little girl off the bed’s edge, mid-air, utterly vulnerable; of Nicoletta, crying in pain and then shaking in silence.

Patients died while she stood there. Two, four, six, more across the city. Brothers, lovers, children. Not hers. She slipped a string of charms under her peacock-blue veils.

“What on earth are you doing, Catia!” Aoife shrieked. “We need every one of those, I’m too spent to make more.”

“My daughter is sick.” She was past shame, like a man howling as a peacekeeper kept him from laying his wife to rest; like a woman who abandoned her child to fate because she had other children and would not let fate take them all. “She’ll die in the night if I—”

“You think you’re the only one? You think I have any family left at all? You think I don’t wish I was dead right now? One-in-three I was meant to be able to save, and all five of them drowned in their blood.”

Catia shoved the string at her. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Aoife wasn’t there. Her stormy-sea eyes focused on her dead, she missed Catia’s apology; missed what Catia apologized for. Turning back to the ward, she did not notice the trifling new weight in a fold of Catia’s veils.

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One of the patients they had saved her first day was not regaining his strength. He remained chalk-white, unnaturally pale for a plainsman. He was conscious, at times. He was dying and he knew it, and in a gentlemanly way (though his hands did not speak of gentility) was only sorry to take so long about it.

He faded out again, and they needed the bed. It fell to Catia to find two healers to countersign the forms necessary, even in a crisis like this, to hurry a patient along.

She found the rules comforting, even though she checked every ten minutes that her loot was secure. As long as this island of triage and forms-in-triplicate existed, as long as the plague-house held out, she could tell herself that despite her crime and all the crimes committed amid the anarchy of an epidemic, they still belonged to a civilization.

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Once again, she missed her watch.

“Pier Antonio? Pier Antonio!” Her veils caught and tore on a splinter in the doorframe of Nicoletta’s room. She didn’t lose the charm; it had imprinted on her hand during the walk home.

He knelt by the bed, his back to her. The child didn’t stir, and Catia’s stomach rebelled as she recognized that fatal stillness. But this time she was not helpless—she’d made certain of that. She thought she saw Death in her peripheral vision, a moth-wing flutter.

“Do you want her? Want to finish the work we interrupted? You’re going to have to fight me for her, and you can’t touch me. Though often enough I’ve wished you could. And you won’t take her either!” She tore aside the bed sheets, found blood pooling around the girl’s head, and took out the charm, possessed by fury and love. One-in-eight. Good enough odds to give battle.

The breath went out of her as she saw the dark stain seeping from the foot of the bed, leaking out of her husband. His chest rose shallow, irregular. Flash cases, which are a fucking pain.

She didn’t even know the child. This was not Nicoletta, could never be Nicoletta.

But he would want her to save the girl. Even if he had always overestimated her.

Odds were they would both die.

He had dismissed her apologies for inviting Death into their home.

The girl wasn’t breathing.

She took his cooling hand, gave it a courtly kiss.

She immersed the charm in the girl’s blood.

Pier Antonio faded while she waited for a response. Seven-in-eight the girl would follow. Not that the odds had ever been anywhere near fair. They’d lost before they’d even tried, before the girl had even lived. Pier Antonio would have said something silly and utterly disarming, like “Well, it wouldn’t have been chivalrous to just hand her over.” She could hear him – his voice ripped through her and she thought she bled as well.

Catia spilled onto the bed, holding the child. She could hardly explain why she hadn’t left her in the street. But there they were, so she shielded the little girl as best she could.

“You don’t get any more of my children,” she told the shape in the corner, more weary than fierce. And the child gasped for air.

Death didn’t care about Catia’s threats, but one-in-eight happens sometimes. Not daring to believe, she reached for the light. No shadows lapped at the edges of her vision.

The little girl opened her eyes, coughed, breathed clearly, and fell asleep in the soaked, dishevelled bed. Catia raced to heat some broth. Something practical. When the child woke for good, she would need to ask Aoife where she could find a translator. Maybe she could reunite the child, immune now, with her mother.

And if not, she could raise the child herself—but it would be different. Alone. She would have to be everything the little girl needed in this mostly capricious world. She ladled the warm broth into a bowl. She would manage. The plague-house managed, some god knew how.

Catia moved the girl to her own clean room, leaving the broth to feed her when she woke. She would take Pier Antonio’s body to the crematorium tomorrow. Before she slept, Catia lit a stick of incense in Nicoletta’s room, less to give thanks for the child’s salvation than to mask the battlefield reek of sweat and blood.

© 2018 by Maya Chhabra


Maya Chhabra is a graduate of the Alpha Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Workshop for Young Writers, for which this story was originally written. Her poetry has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Liminality, Mythic Delirium, Through the Gate, Star*Line, and The Cascadia Subduction Zone. Her novella Toxic Bloom is forthcoming from Falstaff Books, and her novelette Walking on Knives, a queer retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” is available from Less Than Three Press. Visit her online at Maya Reads Books or on Twitter as @mayachhabra.