Until last night, this morning even, it was always Marcus’s responsibility to keep the coal bin loaded and to keep the fire stoked. He was the last of the boys. The last of my brothers. The last of my siblings.
It was the pox that got Johnny. Then Billy, Bobby, and Rachael (my twin) all passed during the plague two summers ago.
When Marcus came home, he stomped the snow off his feet, fed the fire with some coal, then warmed his hands by the fire.
I noticed he never took the scarves from his neck.
“Brother, why not take off your woolens? The heat will warm you better.”
“It’s fine, Lizzy. Leave me be for a few minutes, please?”
This was unlike him. He was always the most soft-spoken of my brothers. It was only natural to wonder if he might die, as so many of my siblings had. It was only him, mother, and me now. We had to be strong and loving to each other.
Momma burst into the tiny room; her skirts were a cyclone of fabric that floated dangerously close to the fire.
“Marcus! What did you say to Lizzy? I think you ought to apologize, or do I need to strap your backside?”
At that point, my brother, one of the strongest boys, practically a man, fell to his knees and placed his head on the ground before me.
“I’m so sorry, Lizzy. Please forgive me. Please.”
He was crying. I’d never seen my brother cry. Not once. Not when our brother passed, not even when Rachael died two years past.
“Marcus, what is it?” momma said, stepping closer to her firstborn son and her youngest daughter, me.
Here Marcus turned and began kissing momma’s feet.
“Momma, momma, I am sorry. I did a bad thing today. I’m so sorry, please both of you, forgive me,” he said, pulling me towards them, prostrating himself before us, begging for forgiveness.
“Marcus, what is it, son?”
Momma’s voice had a quiver now.
Marcus pulled his head from the floor. Kneeling on the floor, my brother finally pulled his heavy scarves aside. Momma and I both screamed when we saw his neck.
I helped momma to the rocker before she fell and hurt herself. There had been enough death and injury in our family. We had to take care of each other.
“How long?” I said.
He understood. Time was of the essence.
“Not one-half hour past,” he says, drying his eyes on his sleeves.
“There might still be time,” momma said, reviving herself from the rocker.
The three of us sprang into action simultaneously. We knew the terrain. We’d lived through this sort of thing before; we each had our jobs.
“Lizzy, make ready the room,” momma said.
“Marcus, scrub that,” she said, wincing as she brought her fingers close to his fresh wounds.
“And the…, book, momma?”
“Good thinking, Lizzy. I shall retrieve it from my room.”
Our entire cabin was a cramped thing with tiny rooms. It used to be even more cramped, but that was before all the sickness came to the valley.
In the morning, I woke up early. It was still dark outside. The full moon was only now settling between Mr. William’s two hills. The moon looked like a marble of white light nestled in the valley between the two lightly treed hills. It always made me smile when I saw it do that.
“Stop dawdling, girl. Your brother’s life is in peril.”
I chastised myself as I filled my basket with a few lumps of coal. I closed the box and hefted my basket, holding it by the bottom this time, lest I ruin another one.
I tend to the fire first. Then I entered the room.
Marcus still sleeps, but only fitfully. Sweat covered his face, and he shivered and mumbled as his body fought the evil that coursed through his veins.
“How’s he doing, momma?” I said.
She flinched as if I had woken her.
She had dragged the rocker into the room. The back of it hit the wall- the front touched the bed. Originally this had been where our guests slept. But after the plague, it became something else.
“He’s fighting it. He might be alright. I’m praying, child.”
Momma had placed her bible on the little table by the bed where guests once slept.
In the bed, Marcus flinches at wipes at the cloth we used to cover the twin puncture wounds in his neck.
On top of the family’s most prized possession, our bible, momma had set the mallet and two sharpened oak stakes.
Ever since the plague, nobody stayed dead no more. And that was just rude.