Outside the children had started to sing. Their voices penetrated the haze of fever, and her eyelids flickered open.
Ring, ring, ring around the rosies,
Pocket full of posies;
We all fall down.
She groaned and writhed among her dirty sheets. Children, those little angels of death, chattering and crying as they danced hand in hand around the funeral pyre. The warmth of the consumed flesh attracted them, like moths they sought out the only light they could find. If only they could keep quiet.
Ring, ring, ring around the rosies…
She looked around the quarantine room. How long? The fever rendered her clueless about time. She could remember them dragging her through the door, her legs limp against the cold floor. She had been delirious. Crying.
When they stripped her of her clothes, her skin followed. It hurt so bad to be scraped bare. She struggled as her caretakers forced her down into a tub of ice water. Instead of feeling cold, it burnt like fire. Nothing made sense anymore.
She lay in her bed, listening to moans and whimpers. The small room was filled to its brim with patients, the sour stench of disease unbearable. Death itself lingered in the air. This wasn’t a place to get well. She’d understood that in the moment she was brought here. This was a graveyard.
Her days were characterized by the clattering of hooves and the chimes of the brass bell as the body carriage rolled back and forth outside her window. Cling, clong. They dragged out the limp bodies of the deceased, piled them up like firewood on the barrow. Then they drove away before returning to fetch the next load.
And all the time, this odious song.
We all fall down.
They were waiting for her. Counting her remaining hours. Soon it’ll be your turn. Your fumes shall keep us warm. We’ll breathe you, we’ll eat you.
We all fall down.
She never saw her family. Perhaps they were already dead. Or just too scared to come visit her. The only ones keeping her company were the strange men in bird masks and mantles. They came by occasionally, dancing through the room while chanting incantations, flapping their arms like giant crows feasting on their prey.
She wished for them to go away. They disrupted her sleep.
After some time, she didn’t know how long, men in white coats came to move her into a new room. It was a very lonely room, without any children crying, people coughing, vomiting or scratching rashes. No one came to visit her in this lonely room. Not the doctors, not the bird men dressed in their grotesque beaks. It was quiet, quiet enough for her to hear the rustle of her buboes bursting, the soft moans of flesh falling off bone. She was but an old corpse that no one wanted to acknowledge. Disgusting, smelly, all covered in different kinds of secretion.
On the last night, her skin was so brittle she could dig her hands through her rib cage and cup them around her heart. It was pounding weak and pitiful against her fingers. She held it tenderly like a child, cradled it while whispering the words as a lullaby.
Ring around the rosies,
Pockets full of posies;
We too shall fall down.
When the sound of hooves clattering first reached her ears she first thought it was the body carriage, coming to take her away. Panic grabbed hold of her. No, she thought desperately. Don’t burn me. I’m not dead yet! But she couldn’t make out the sound of the bell or the wheels. Only the rhythmic rattling of hooves.
She held her heart firmly, seeking comfort.
After a while she became aware of someone’s presence. A voice behind her cleared its throat. She turned her head to discover who it was.
A large, black figure was crouching right on her windowsill. She’d never seen anything quite like it. The creature had the torso of a man, but its legs ended in a couple of sturdy hooves, as on a devil sprung from hell.
She tried to scream, but only a brief whisper escaped her throat:
“Who are you? What do you want?” Her voice was but a hoarse croaking, but her visitor seemed to understand her nevertheless.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” it said with a cheerfully jingling tune and stood up on the ledge. “I am Phantos Morthanatos, macabrian, and I must say that I am fascinated by your wee little talent there. How hideous, yes, how utterly disgusting! I’m sure it would make an impression on the crowd. Perhaps even cause someone in the frontline to faint.” He nodded contently to himself.
Alarmed, she let go of the heart and pulled up her covers to shield her terrible, buboe-coated body from view.
“What are you talking about?” she whispered.
The black figure leapt down from the window shelf and walked across the room. He wore a big cloak covering his face and a matching black coat which twisted around his enormous hooves.
She took a deep breath and thereby almost choked on the slime gathered in the back of her throat. After coughing for a good while she quacked out:
“You are… you are not human.”
The man let out a low chuckle under his hood.
“Much better,” he said. “I may have been once like you, but as you can see, I’ve been given an invaluable blessing.”
She looked at him questioningly. Were he calling his condition, whatever it was, a blessing?
“My only wish,” he said with the cheerful voice which reminded her of a salesman, “is to share this gift with anyone who might need it. Tell me, would you like to be a part of my show?”
She coughed. A blood bubble grew between her lips and then burst.
“S-show?” she stuttered, convinced she’d misheard him somehow.
“Yes. You see, I’m the master of a very skillful and auspicious circus.” The man on hooves took a few steps to the left. Clunc. Clunc. She followed him suspiciously with her gaze.
“We are the most sought out show of them all,” the creature continued. “People travel far across land and sea just to see us perform. Imagine it!” He slammed his hooves at the floor suddenly and she flinched. “You, standing in the spotlight! The roar of the crowd beneath! All eyes on you!” He gestured wildly with his long arms. “And best of all – seeing their reactions as you enter the stage. The naked terror in the bared white of their eyes!” He clenched his fist so that the long nails screeched against each other with a hair-raising sound. “To squeeze all their arrogant beliefs out of them. Breathe life into every tale, every forgotten legend of creatures that go bump in the night! Make them fear you! Make them bow to you!”
She stared at him blankly. What kind of a feverish dream was this?
“Are you crazy?” She coughed. “How am I supposed to do all of that? Can’t you see I’m dying? I’m d…” She choked, bending over the edge of her bed. A blood covered lump of slime flew out of her throat and landed on the floor.
“Oh yes, you are. Dying.” The monstrous male nodded, as if the fact couldn’t interfere with his plans. “And it’ll happen soon, too. What is it, day eleven after contamination? Most don’t make it past seven.”
He shook his head.
“A peculiarly strong life force you’ve got,” he said. “But it won’t help you now. You’ll die anyway, just like the others. Die and be forgotten as another nameless corpse in the pit. No one’s going to cry for you. No one’s going to care. And you know what’s worse than all of this?”
He leaned in closer.
“You are already dead,” he whispered in her ear. “To them – ” He pointed at the door. “You were dead in the moment you were brought here. Look, they’ve even stopped coming to check on you. They won’t give you a chance, because they know you’ve got none. They’ve left you here to rot, smeared in your own… body fluids!”
She furrowed her face out of pain and humiliation. It made one of the buboes burst and a drop of secretion hit her chin. She bit her bottom lip hard not to cry.
“Oh, but you’re a fighter.” The creature sounded leery. He took a couple of steps back. “A survivor, I can tell. Your heart craves for vengeance. To lie here, secretly hoping for death? No. That won’t do. You’re not done here. You wish for them to notice you, to fear you. And I can give you the chance.”
He reached out a hand. The forearm was covered by thick, black straws of hair.
She didn’t know what to say. Her feverish brain was working annoyingly slow.
“Are you offering to… to take me with you?” she whispered. “Even though I’m…” She took a deep, gargling breath. “Do you want me like… like this?”
The man laughed elatedly.
“Trust me,” he said. “You’ll score a huge success. All you need is a fitting name. Don’t tell me,” he added rigorously when she opened her mouth. “I don’t want to know your name. It’s all in the past now. I’m not interested in your life or who you used to be until now. I don’t care about the people you’ve disappointed, the boys you’ve kissed or anyone who has ever meant anything to you. From now on, you’re going to be someone else. More accurately, one of Morthanatos Merry Monsters! You’ll like it. It’s so very different from this life. Like being reborn. But I need your consent. Do you accept my terms?”
She lay silently for a while, pondering on the things she’d been told. A new life. A chance to begin again. To run away and… join a circus. Become applauded, maybe even celebrated. Provided that the man was telling the truth, she saw no harm in it for her part. And what did she have to lose anyway? There was nothing left for her here except disease and death.
Outside she could hear the children sing Ring around the rosies again.
Even though she couldn’t see the mans face, she was certain he was smiling. He leaned in over her slowly. From the shoulder blades two enormous, black sails shot out. Leathery, like a bat. She stared at him in awe and considered she might be hallucinating this, after all.
Other figures appeared before her. Men and women with grotesque deformities in their faces and bodies. Some of them were pure monstrosities. Extra pairs of eyes and arms. Tails. Horns. Tentacles. Tainted, decomposing flesh.
The monsters gathered in a circle around her sickbed, as in a ritual they placed their slimy, bony hands on her covers. One after another. She felt their touch through the fabric, and it hurt, but not in the way the plague had hurt her, no, this was a purifying pain, pulling the sickness out. The wings of the man closed around them all in a chilly embrace and just then the world, as she knew it, ceased to exist.
So, I hope you all enjoyed this. It’s an idea for a short story I’ve had in my mind for quite some time, and finally managed to post here. This part has been translated from Swedish, so I apologize for any linguistic errors. The next part I’ll write directly in English so hopefully I won’t have that problem.
Please, let me know what you think, and if I should post the continuation here as well!