By Melissa Sorensen
Phebe Alexander shook out the coarse black folds of her day gown and pulled them over her nightclothes. She also put on her unseasonably-thick woolen stockings and added protective garments donated by one of the Lucyspoole Female Orphan Asylum’s benefactors: thick and ill-shaped black cloth gloves that went up to her elbows, as well as a broad-brimmed hat made of plaited straw, dyed black, with a surprisingly fine-woven black veil that was meant to be tucked in around a girl’s neck. The extra layers of protection were against the peasefly, a revolting insect that cut incisions in flesh and inserted its maggots into the wounds. The tiny worms began to stand out from the skin within a few days, creating a swelling that looked like a pile of split-and-dried peas.
The hat-and-glove benefactor had donated only ten sets of protective clothing – far too few for the 50 girls who normally lived at the Orphan Asylum, but just right for its current healthy population. It had been a bad summer for fever, the worst the doctor could remember, and many girls who had no one in healthier country to take them in had found permanent homes in the earth. A few even lay in the pits dug for peasefly sickness victims, their bodies covered over with lime and molten lead.
Phebe had overheard one of the nurses saying that Ruth White, Phebe’s 12-year-old best friend, would be the next to be lowered into such a lead-lined pit.
The nature of peasefly sickness meant Ruth could not join the other girls in the infirmary. Instead, she was isolated in the schoolroom, since all classes had been cancelled. Phebe was determined to go see her. Other friends had been swallowed up by hushed, nurse-guarded places, never to reappear except as burdens in plain pine boxes. It was intolerable to think of Ruth slipping into oblivion this way.
At an undersized 11 years old, Phebe was one of the smallest of the Orphan Asylum’s students and the floor scarcely creaked under her slight weight. Even still, she carried her shoes in her hand to keep them from making their customary “klop, klop” noise as she slipped through the dormitory, headed for the door that led down through the refectory and then to the outside.
The girls’ schoolroom was a small, squat building beyond the garden, built as close to the standing water of the swampy English woods as possible without the stones actually sinking into the muck. Phebe shoved her feet into her brass-buckled shoes as soon as she’d snuck out the front door and immediately began a mad run down the puddle-pocked gravel path toward the school. It was not a long run, but the air was full of heavy, stinking mud smells and she imagined fever drifting deep into her lungs every time she took a breath. Peaseflies were sluggish at night, but they still often left their oozing, festering wounds upon the neck, hands and shoulders.
The door to the schoolroom seemed to be barred from inside with something too heavy for Phebe to move, so she tried the windows. They had no locks, and were propped open often on hot days, so they moved easily when she planted her palms against the wood of the sash and pushed up. Climbing up the fieldstone wall in her layers of clothes was difficult, but not impossible, and she was soon able to drop down onto the schoolroom floor. The hard soles of her shoes made a sharp report against the wooden planks and for an instant she froze, half expecting some officious nurse to storm over and box her ears. However, the only sound in the room was the crackling collapse of logs in the fireplace and the only movement a brief shower of orange sparks.
Whatever Phebe had expected when she reached the schoolroom, it was not the bizarre tableau in front of her. There was a raging fire in the fireplace – far larger than was necessary to chase away midsummer dampness. In fact, the Orphan Asylum girls were seldom allowed such an expenditure of wood in the winter. Even more incongruous were the little ceramic cottages, set here and there, which puffed the thick, sweet-herbal smell of sickroom incense through their chimneys.
By the large fireplace, there were two figures, both absolutely still. One was a soldier, sitting on one of the teachers’ chairs and leaning his head against the stone chimney breast as if he’d been drugged. The ruddy light of the fire picked out the brass buttons on his open uniform coat and cast a long, blood-red sheen down the barrel of his propped-up musket. Startled and frightened though she might have been by the strange man and his gun, Phebe scarcely knew what to make of the second figure, which looked like little more than a bundle of old sheets. It was cocoon-like, bound with cloth strips to a door laid flat upon two of the benches the girls normally sat on during their lessons. The fire cast flickering light over the knob and hinges of the thick door, but the swaddling of the sheets left the bound figure’s face in unrecognizable half-shadow.
Phebe ran over to the small, shrouded person. Though her shoes made a clattering sound on the floorboards, the soldier never stirred. The child tied to the door did, however. A turning of the head revealed a spill of strawberry-blond hair that confirmed Phebe’s worst fears.
“Ruth! Don’t worry, I’ll have you free in a moment.” Phebe dropped to her knees beside the strange door-bed and stripped off her hat and gloves. Then she began picking at the knots with her fingers and teeth.
“Phebe, don’t,” came Ruth’s surprisingly weak voice. “All I want is water…just a cup.”
Phebe looked at her, and saw that her eyes were glistening and unfocused with fever. In addition to being bound to the door, Ruth had been swaddled like an infant with wide bands of torn fabric wrapped around and around the sheets that covered her. These, too, were fastened by tight knots.
Phebe located the pitcher of water and tin cup sitting on the floor by the unconscious soldier’s feet. She was disgusted by the distinct impression that the soldier had drunk the pitcher to half-full himself.
Once she’d filled the cup, Phebe lifted her friend’s head and held the drink to her lips. Ruth sucked the water down as if she’d been desperate for it.
“It was cruel of them to tie you to a door! You can’t even get your own water. And who is that man? Why has the headmistress let him sit all alone with you, when you ought to have a proper nurse?”
When Ruth had drunk the cup dry, she paused to breathe laboriously for a moment and then said, “These bindings are here to protect you and everyone else at Lucyspoole. As for that man, he was meant to help me, until the time came. His name is ‘Mr. Murray’, and he was ordered here by Captain Prescott because he fell ill and can no longer dig the great, square graves the regiment is making now. Before his head began to hurt so much, he said that they’d buried almost as many of his fellow soldiers as they have villagers, mostly from fever. Mr. Murray won’t admit he’s very sick, but I’m sure he is. Would you check on him, Phebe? I’m afraid I will need him before morning, whether he is ill or not.”
Phebe shook Mr. Murray’s shoulder, and got no response but a low, thin moan. When she shook him again, his eyes opened briefly and she could see that the pupil on the right side had blown so wide that there was almost no iris left. It made him look worse than dead. The young girl cried out and backed away from him. The sharp sound of her voice seemed to agitate him and Mr. Murray clawed at the right side of his head with his right arm, but the left side of him flopped and twitched like a beached fish. For a moment, Phebe was sure he was going to lurch into the fire, but he dropped against the chimney breast again, groaning and holding his head. A final shudder sent his musket crashing to the floor, inches away from where the cherry-red embers lay.
Phebe knew enough about guns to understand that a single spark was enough to set them off and she snatched the weapon up before the heat radiated down to where the powder rested. She found the weapon surprisingly heavy and about as tall as herself, even without the long bayonet at the end.
Ruth groaned softly. “He’s going to die, isn’t he?”
“I don’t know,” Phebe said. “Should I try to give him some of your water? I’d rather save it for you.”
“Do it,” Ruth said. “He’s the only one here who can fire a musket.”
“Why would we want someone to do that?” Phebe asked, although she did as Ruth asked and poured another cup of water.
“Because,” Ruth said in a very small voice, “he’s here to shoot me.”
“He’s here to what?” Phebe demanded, whirling so abruptly that half the cup’s water slopped on the floor.
Ruth eyed the sparkling liquid longingly. “I have peasefly sickness,” she said softly. “The devil’s death.”
“I heard one of the nurses say so. But peasefly sickness can’t always end in death, can it? I know that surgeons treat it and you were well enough to run around the garden two days ago.”
“I was bitten on the neck and the doctor says that’s the most unlucky place to be bitten. He could not get all the worms out before their poison corrupted my blood. The skin there is black now, Phebe. This sheet is like a great dressing over the wound. With the wrapping in place, I don’t have to see the skin anymore, but the smell! I would run from it if I could. After you try to revive Mr. Murray, would you bring one of the pastille burners closer?”
Horrified, Phebe nodded. She felt as if her body were made of wood as she tried tipping the tin cup of liquid into Mr. Murray’s mouth, only to have it all dribble out the slack left corner. She wondered if Ruth had noticed. The blond girl was staring fixedly at the ceiling, breathing through her mouth, as if trying to concentrate on anything but a smell.
Thus far, Phebe smelled nothing but the woodsmoke of the fire and the flowery, resinous scent of the burning cones of gum arabic and herbs within the pastille burners, but then, she wasn’t wrapped up tight in a sheet with her own blackening flesh.
She crossed to the place where one of the study tables had been pushed against the wall and picked up one of the smoking ceramic cottages that held the cones of incense. Phebe carefully set the little pink-and white confection on the floor by the door that was serving Ruth as a bed.
“Is that better?” she asked, managing to sound passably ordinary, although she was unable to get the image of her best friend’s worm-poisoned blood out of her mind. However much she loved Ruth, she was now fighting the urge to run. In carrying the burner over to Ruth’s side, she had noticed that several tables and benches had been pushed up against the door, as if to prevent someone from escaping.
“Yes, much better,” Ruth said, lifting her head from the door’s wood and inhaling deeply. “I wish the doctor and the nurses hadn’t left me, but I suppose I don’t blame them, considering what’s going to happen.”
“Nothing’s going to happen. You’re going to get better. You’re not nearly as sick as Mr. Murray – you can talk and reason, and all he can do is drool. He should be tied down on that door, not you.”
Ruth shook her head slowly no. As she did so, the sheet at her throat gaped and Phebe became aware of a nauseating odour. “Phebe,” Ruth said, through lips that had peeled and cracked through her feverish need for water, “will you do it for me? Will you shoot the nest in my throat, so that once my soul is gone, the flies hatching in me can’t hurt anybody? If you miss the musket shot, I believe Mr. Murray has a pistol somewhere about him, as well…he may have let it fall beneath his chair.”
Phebe felt her spine go rigid with horror and, although she heard her own voice, she could hardly believe she was speaking aloud. “I don’t know how to fire a gun.”
“I know that you must click the hammer back two times. I remember my father’s fowling piece would not fire if it were only clicked back once.”
“Ruth – someone else….”
“Who else?” Ruth pressed. “I’m sure none of them know any more than you do about firearms. Headmistress Marwood might be brave enough to run out on foot to find another man of Captain Prescott’s regiment, but she might not arrive safely and, even if she did, they wouldn’t let her return to you for days or weeks. That’s the whole point of keeping men out on the road, to make sure everyone stays inside until the peaseflies and the fever-dew have passed.”
The Orphan Asylum kept no stables – it barely had enough donors to keep its residents in stockings and shoes – and so, all journeys had to be undertaken on foot. Phebe remembered her own heart-hammering fear at going outdoors long enough to run to the schoolroom. Ruth was right that hunting for another soldier might be useless at best and fatal at worst. That left only the girls and teachers of the Asylum itself.
For Ruth’s peace of mind more than from her own commitment to shoot, Phebe said, “All right…I’ll do it.”
Ruth relaxed, seeming to flatten and lengthen in the process. A soft sigh escaped her and she said, “Thank you, Phebe. If it weren’t for the danger to you, I should have wished for you from the first, instead of a poor, sick soldier.”
“Ssh, now. Have some more water,” Phebe said, pouring another tin cupful.
Ruth drank the contents of the cup eagerly and settled back upon her makeshift bed. Phebe then crept up to lie upon the door, as well, and wrapped her arm around her sick friend. The smell of putrefying flesh made the meager contents of her stomach roil, but now and again, a wafting ghost of burning anise and violets would wash over her, and give her just enough of a respite to remain where she was.
“I will take care of you, Ruth,” Phebe said, and squeezed the other girl tighter.
“I know you will, Phebe. I trust you,” Ruth answered.
Eventually, the sick girl’s breathing grew slow and regular, as if with healthy sleep. However, when Phebe caressed her sweating brow, she found that the side that faced the fire was surprisingly cool, while the other side was positively cold. It was worrisome that anybody could seem cold so close to a fire, but Ruth’s presence and soft, familiar breathing was calming. Before long, Phebe was asleep, despite the smell and the hard discomfort of the door.
She awoke to a high, thin screaming. In her abortive dream, she had thought the sound came from a starving ghost, begging at one of the schoolroom windows. She scrambled off the door and fell, instinctively fleeing the sound, before she was fully alert and aware that reality was far worse than her dream.
The sound came from Ruth, who lay very still on her back, her mouth open in a wide, expressionless ‘O’. In the grey, pre-dawn light, Phebe could see that both her pupils had been blasted unnaturally wide, as Mr. Murray’s right one had been. Mr. Murray himself was collapsed on the floor in a strange, froglike position, making occasional grunting noises as he clutched at his head. Phebe could smell that he had vomited on the hearth.
She turned back to Ruth, who continued to keen, even as she stared blankly up at the rafters. Phebe called out her friend’s name, uncertain.
There was no reply. Phebe tried not to think about what she had promised to do earlier. Instead, she grabbed the other girl by the shoulders and shook her, shouting, “Wake up!” again and again. Her shaking met no resistance, and Ruth’s head flopped like a rag doll’s, even as the rest of her body remained still, bound rigidly against the door.
Then suddenly, Ruth turned her head and snapped at Phebe’s hand, as if trying to catch and crush a finger in her even, white teeth. Phebe pulled her hands back as if she’d been burnt. Worse, the biting motion had required Ruth to stretch out her neck, and Phebe turned sharply away, fighting back rising bile.
As Phebe staggered back toward the wall of the room, Ruth began to struggle with her bindings. She lunged again and again at the spot where Phebe had been, as if the girl had left some impression there that incited mindless aggression.
“Mr. Murray!” Phebe cried. “Mr. Murray, what do I do?” But the soldier continued to grunt and groan and clutch at his head.
Phebe did not want to pick up a gun and shoot her friend, the closest thing she had to a sister, even if Ruth was dying the devil’s death. “Please, Ruth, not yet! Lie down and go to sleep again. I can’t – ” Her words ended in a shriek as Ruth’s violent struggling flipped the door off its bench supports and sent her crashing to the floor, face down.
For a time, there was no movement and almost total silence, except for Phebe’s terrified, sobbing breath. In the brightening dawn light, she could see a pool of something that looked like dark, thick blood and stank like decay spreading from under the door.
“Can you…still hear me?” she called out shakily. The door trembled slightly. Phebe longed to lift it up and find her friend underneath – injured, perhaps, but herself. She told herself it was possible that the fall had knocked reason back into her. It was only the smell that kept her away.
Giving the quivering door a wide berth, she crept around to the hearthside, where she’d left the soldier’s musket. Not for real use, she told herself, just in case. Avoiding the fluid that leaked out from under the door, she pushed the barrel of the long gun under a corner of the thick wood and heaved up, using the weapon as a lever.
She had to throw all her strength into lifting, placing the gun’s stock on her shoulder and fighting to straighten up. The bayonet at the barrel’s end began to bend at its base from taking the full pressure of lifting, but the door slowly began to swing up toward its thin edge, as if it were opening from an unnatural place in the floor.
Eventually, Ruth was revealed underneath, with blackish liquid running from her nose and lips. Worse, she seemed to be compulsively tearing with her teeth at the fluid-soaked fabric on her chest and side. Her face was smeared with the substance, as though she were a child gobbling jam without a spoon.
She’d already done a good job of shredding the band that held her chest to the door. Even if she shredded them all, however, she would still be bundled and tied in the sheets that were wrapped tight around her. Phebe told herself there was no real threat of Ruth breaking out and using her stained teeth on others. No need to shoot. Not yet. Please, not yet.
Even still, Phebe hurried to put on the closest thing she had to a helmet and armour – her black straw hat and veil, and the thick, baggy, cotton-linen gloves meant to protect her from the peaseflies.
She took the musket with her when she ran over to a wall and grabbed hold of one of the school tables, carefully lined up there as on all non-school days. The tables were normally moved about by teams of girls, and it took her some time and effort to shove one over onto its side. Once she did, however, she had a thick, rough, oak-plank fortress to crouch behind. While she was setting up her defenses against whatever smelled so strongly of death, she could hear the soft, horribly-wet rip and pull of Ruth eating her way out of her stained bonds.
Phebe balanced the musket on the edge of the table, pointing inward toward the room. “Don’t worry, Ruth,” she said to the creature she was increasingly sure was no longer Ruth. “When full dawn comes, they’ll miss me and they’ll come looking for us. Maybe Mr. Murray can’t help us, but I know our teachers will.” She didn’t mention that she had no idea what any of the handful of adults left at Lucyspoole would do.
Her words were followed by a long, tearing sound and the damp slither of something wet being dragged over the floorboards. “Ruth?” she called out, very quietly this time.
There was no answer. Phebe’s hands began to tremble so badly that the bent bayonet tip of the musket shook like a ship’s mast-top in a storm. She could not see Ruth – or what was left of her – because the door was still propped up on its edge against the school benches. The same obstacle kept her from seeing much of Mr. Murray, except for the lower part of his legs in their grey trousers and black shoes. He seemed motionless, but now and then, he groaned.
After a short time, the slithering sound stopped, and for the space of perhaps a minute or so, the only sounds were the creaky chorus of insects outside and the occasional, warbling call of a blackbird.
Then the door crashed down and Mr. Murray began to scream.
Phebe jumped to her feet, hauling up the heavy musket, and began to scream, too. The thing that had been Ruth had crawled free of its bindings like a blowfly emerging from its pupal case. Everything around the creeping body was covered in dark, sticky liquid. Some had landed in black splotches on Mr. Murray’s red coat, and Not-Ruth was worming toward him, half-swimming through the mess by dragging herself on her splayed elbows and knees.
Worse – thick, fingerling lumps squirmed beneath the flesh of her ruined neck and Phebe recognized instantly what they must be. Peaseflies. Adults, by the size of them, ready to fly and spread poisoned blood.
Phebe had not really meant to keep her promise to shoot Ruth, but she raised the musket now, pressing its butt plate against her shoulder the way she had seen in pictures of the Army. It was too heavy and awkward for her to manipulate with one shaking arm and she had to scrabble with her left hand, trying to grip the underside of the stock with at least two fingers, while fighting to use her thumb to push the hammer back one, two times.
Not-Ruth had reached Mr. Murray by that time and had fallen upon his befouled chest and belly. He shrieked like one of the damned, waving his one functional hand as if he were trying to strike her away while blinded.
Phebe tried to aim at her former friend’s neck, but the gun barrel shook too much in her hands. Yet, if she dropped back down behind her table shelter, the door would act as a shield to the horrible scene unfolding on the floor.
She would have to come out of her hiding place.
Phebe’s shoes seemed to thunder on the floorboards as she ran out to the benches that propped up the door. The sound got Not-Ruth’s attention and she turned her horrific, filthy face away from Mr. Murray. Her pupils were so wide now that they seemed like holes, devoid of any colour at all. The parts of her face that were not covered in a red-black mess were as pale and expressionless as the moon.
Phebe took aim at her, using the edge of the door as an aid to steady her weapon, and pulled the trigger.
The gun roared and plumes of white smoke erupted from both pan and bore. The door clattered to the ground, partly covering Not-Ruth, where she lay sprawled with a grape-sized hole in her chest. Her hands appeared to open and close reflexively, and she made a strange, thick, gurgling sound, but she did not seem able to move.
The peasefly-shaped swellings beneath her blackened throat did move, however, and they pumped and writhed madly, as if struggling even harder to hatch now that their host had collapsed. Phebe threw down the musket – she had no time to reload it, even if she’d known how – and dove for the pistol that the living Ruth had pointed out beneath the soldier’s chair. The chair’s legs knocked her over-broad hat off and the veil was torn away from her face as her gloved hand closed over the pistol’s barrel.
Phebe could already hear the thin whine of wings as she fought beneath the chair to replace the veiled hat that would offer at least some protection to her head and neck.
She then curled up as tightly as she could, shoving her back against the stone chimney breast. There were now fewer directions the hatching flies could come at her from.
Mr. Murray lay directly in front of her and the remains of Ruth had collapsed barely two feet beyond that – almost close enough to touch. Not-Ruth’s face was turned toward Phebe and Mr. Murray, and Phebe gagged as she watched hatching flies begin to chew their way out of the black skin on her neck.
Mr. Murray screamed again as the first gnawing insects fell upon him. The flies appeared drawn by both the blackish ooze that had come from Not-Ruth’s wounds and the living blood in the soldier’s veins. Flies landed on Phebe as well, rubbing their wings with their hind legs, as if eagerly readying themselves to take on a new host. The fabric barriers held just long enough for Phebe to knock the insects off. A few she managed to crush upon the stone hearth beneath her shoe.
Desperate now, she pointed the pistol at Not-Ruth’s seething throat, even though the other girl’s red-tinted blond hair still shone in the morning sunlight and her dead eyes were still the same sweet almond shape that Phebe had looked to for cheer and comfort in the hard, grey world of the Orphan Asylum.
“I’m sorry, Ruth,” Phebe whispered, her eyes tearing in the smoke and smothering odour of decay.
Then, before she could give in to cowardice, she pulled back the pistol’s hammer, and fired into Not-Ruth’s neck.
Once the roaring of the pistol shot had stopped ringing in her ears, she could hear people beating on the door to the schoolroom.
“Don’t open it!” Phebe cried. She threw the chair off of herself and crossed the room at a run, not daring to look down at Not-Ruth’s motionless remains. She did, however, inadvertently step on a few half-blasted peasefly carcasses.
Grey gunsmoke now drifted across the schoolroom’s length, adding the stink of sulfur to the other, more repulsive odours. Phebe could hear the remaining flies blundering around, batting their heads into windows and searching for her.
When she reached the window she’d crawled in through, she saw Miss Marwood, the headmistress, on the other side, as shrouded in black as she herself was. Miss Marwood helped her haul the sash up just enough for Phebe to escape, and then slammed the panel of wood and glass down upon a peasefly that had nearly darted free.
Later, Phebe’s clothes were burnt and she was carefully examined for bites, but her protective coverings had done their job, if only just.
There was no saving Ruth or Mr. Murray, and both ended up in a communal grave under a silvery coverlet of molten lead. In a way, the schoolroom died, too. It was deemed unfit for further use and as autumn finally brought a return of students and general health, the girls were educated in the refectory.
In October, there was finally a church service for all the dead. The pastor (who helped lay in the meager provisions at Lucyspoole) tried to smooth over the large number of deaths that had occurred in an institution for poor orphans. He waxed philosophical about how God’s eye knew every little sparrow and so, no orphaned girl could ever truly be called ‘neglected’.
Phebe sat with her hands folded and listened. However, she could not forget the empty beds upstairs in the dormitory, or the empty places at the refectory table.
Ruth, she thought, I wish God had spent less time watching the little sparrows and more time watching over you.
Bio: Melissa Sorensen is a teacher and amateur historian living in southeastern Michigan. This is her first published work.