‘The Plague Doctor’ by Corey J. Browning The Society June 17, 2015 Culture, Poetry Marseille, France In the year 1720, the last great occurrence of bubonic plague struck the port city of Marseille, France, killing half of its citizens in less than a year. June 16, 1720 The bells were ringing all throughout the day, Announcing to the inhabitants that The thing in which we all have fear, has come! We waited next to the port yesterday, Watching a barge docked by the lazaret. Grand-Saint-Antoine set sail from the Levant, And brought with him the plague that would ensue. I heard that all on board were dead—pity. Then came the talk that some were still alive. Of ghastly form, they held Death in disguise. If not for those of avarice intent, The ones whose gilded tongues had wrought ideas Of lost cargo needed for fairs upon The weakened hearts of the authorities, We might have braved the distemper to come. To no avail, for their decision stands. Let they the barge into our port, indeed. And from its womb did birth this black disease. The bells of Notre-Dame del’ Garde rang loud, And brought me from such slumb’rous life to see The coming of such devastation. Here He walks about in such hideous guise, Among the streets of summer-time Marseille. His name is Death and Mercy knows he not. The knells a warning to all whom can hear: “His prowl has begun! His prowl has begun!” I know a notable portion of town; (Those working the affair at the shipyard), Has already been impregnated with This plight, this scourge, this infectious disease. Low pulse have they, heaviness in the head. Cadaverous they look and walk about With fear inside their sad and weary eyes. As soon as they felt the first strokes of plague, One could determine that they were convinced, Their sickness was incurable, they gave Their hope away immediately then, Before the symptoms came to be so bleak. For this was learnt from Europe’s history. They know that Death is out to collect dues, And on his list are they—And now he comes. The bells brought me to my window to see, Looking down upon the wide thoroughfare, That as a Daemon courier he goes From door to door delivering the post. Delivering the Fate into their hands, A writ of condemnation in black ink; The souls forfeited, damned to depths of hell. No hope exists for those of whom he marks. He takes the very chance of survival Away from those poor sorry souls that day. It’s known that in three days or less they will Be found expired in their very homes After a visit from so dark a man. Thus at the sound of bells a’ ringing here Ran children for their mother’s arms at once. The streets emptied of all who were about, For when, his sword of pestilence, you touch, None could escape the strong grasp of the grave. Then as the specter came more close to view, Upon the horizon of the street I Saw such an image of malignant Death Drawn by the Lord above in such a form To cause the heat of summer’s day to ebb And bring upon my skin the flesh of geese. It froze the breath inside my lungs to ice, And caused the fear of God upon my mind. That such a reaction he could instill Is witness to his sad reputation. Yes, Death will have no lovers on this day. His form echoes a stately raven’s guise. Those birds who fly above a bloodied field, And clean the lea of those who die at war. A chilling mask adorns his monstrous face, Its nose so long, hooked like a raven’s beak. Upon his frame was he in sable shroud. Like wrapped in Satan’s deadly black embrace. And as I watched him move from house to house, The wake of his melancholy patrol Did seem to bleed the street of its color. Like water spilt upon a fresh painting, The ambience did wane by his presence. That such a gait could cause intense distress Upon his viewers sight, though inherent, Was multiplied by his ebon raiment. Aside from what is blatantly overt, I heard a few rumors about his ways. That he does not distinguish between these: The rich, the poor, the wise, the dumb, the young, The old, the frail, the strong, the prince, the priest. No occupation can save one from Death. No situation can render one safe. We all are vulnerable to this fate. Thus all avoid his gaze and watch his place Lest he be tempted to visit their home, And bring massacre upon their abode. I sat there musing at my windowsill, Upon that servant of the devil’s will, Listening to the bells in the distance. Silently thanking God above for my Distance from such a fate, from their demise, For here I sit in youth, hidden from Death. He cannot reach and I will not approach That blackened spawn of Satan’s masquerade. And once that phantom left from out my view The burden of that thought had left my mind. And with his exit came the sweet return Of life upon the gentle summer’s breeze That wafted through my open-wide window. So sharp the smell of bread upon the air Was sign to me that my father was here Thus I did saunter down the stairs to greet My lovely papa, weary from his work. That night we made blessing on wine and bread, We sat in mirth and merriment, divine. Much story, rhyme, and fable told this night Happiness bountiful as food or wine. We ate in peace and comfort so sublime. Thus did this meal as such occur tonight. After this I returned to my window, Once time had reached the middle of the night. And set my eyes distant upon the bay. Such beautiful a sight did grace my eyes: So calm the sea, no ripple to be seen And like a sapphire it’s surface sheen. The stars did pool on its reflection like Some scattered diamonds upon azure glass. Such calm water, the sea utterly still, As if the sea did slumber with us all. The moon did shine such luster on this night, Cascading light upon the cityscape, The city streets below were silent now, The maze of houses laid before my view, And not a soul was seen about the burg. The fireflies of summer did then glow, The only life to stir or make a sound About the streets that hold shadows below. The time was ripe for my ascent to dream, Thus I did make the trip back to my room, And I sat down to sleep, in comfort on my bed. August 1st, 1720 I woke to sadness deep, for I had lost The red ember of hope inside my heart. Twas doused by the impure waters of those Who lay about festering in decay. The sickened stench was nigh unbearable; The viscous fluids seeping from the dead Was boiled by the heat inside this house, To cause a dreadful stench to pierce the air. I fell asleep last night amid my tears For mourn did I, my family was torn From life so quick I had no chance to part From them in love. So sudden was this death. And now they lay in eternal rigor, About this house in beds and chairs as if They slept so sound as babes were want, it seemed. So sad my tears did keep me company Inside this silent dark mortuary. Instinct did tell that it was time to leave This putrid air lest I catch the disease. Thus I did hasten down the stairs to greet. The king who oversees the mortal world, Who half the time he shines upon our sphere, And all the flora drinks his yellow dew. From out my door, the sun, it’s glare so strong Did shine so bright a light to blind my eyes. I gave a minute for my vision to Resume its sight upon the field of view, And such a solemn sight did reach my eyes, To which no speech is worth nor apt to tell The carnage lain about the busy street. So numerous the bodies filled the road, That they provoked the imagery of that Bloody wake of King Leonidas who, Under pinion of Spartan tutelage, Laid waste of Persian blood at the hot gates. Twas rare to find a bit of pavement there, For bodies littered all about the way. Twas little space for spot of foot to step, No inch nor meter left without its space Consumed by those who lay in sick decay. The heat did amplify the rotten stench Of sweat and blood that seep from the deceased. The fluids mixing, boiling in the heat, To cause a stew of foul ingredients. So sick a sight did make me want to retch And reach my arms up to The Lord in doubt: “If you are so benevolent dear God Then why afflict the world with such malaise? Did you not swear to Noah and his sons The deluge of his day would not repeat? Then why are we lost in this flood of death? Forgive the sins of this hallowed city! If not perhaps, this day will cause you rue!” I waited there for a response to come, Alas! No sound did carry on the wind. Resign did I to sit upon my porch To think of all the life the world has lost. This darkness breeds and multiplies like fire Consuming all of man inside her wrath. What is the purpose of this grand design? The climax to be thrown upon a bier, Is this the only course through life to take? The only destination: Hades’ shores? If so to what purpose did God forsake My family and though myself did spare? Such thoughts of forlorn fancy filled my mind. I looked upon the road in fear and loss To see the throngs of living mourning death. They walked here like a lamenting parade, The men in mourners garb, the women veiled. And as a symphony of dissonance They went and sung a shrieking melody. The composer; Death of course, did string such notes Of crying, dying, screaming into this… This song of such sad depredation clear. And as I looked into the crowded street I felt the first breath of mortality For in the crowd was seen that sable knight To which did haunt my every dream this week. I watched as he did move through the infirm Across the crowded cobbled street he walked So close to me. Thus I remembered then That since last night my head was wrought with pain To such degree that I am feeble weak. My eyes are sensitive to all the light Which all the world does bathe inside today. These signs to me were actualized right then By sight of that lithe shade among the crowd. Inside my mind a thought resounded clear: Am I infected with this mortal plight, A force superior to all remedies? No, Death’s seductive charm does not hold sway Upon my broken heart, for life I crave. The only reaction was left to flee From this city, this morose company. I ran with all my might, but blindly so, Among the crooked streets and alleyways. This city, strange and foreign, felt to me, No claim have I upon my sweet Marseille, Not tied by limb or future to this place. Thus race do I to forget all the pain And leave behind this horrid history. For life is waiting upon clearer skies. I ran until the houseless fields were shown Yet one sight by the gate did catch my eyes: There on the road lay trampled one white rose To such a sight I broke down into tears, For who would show such gentle nature scorn? O pallid rose! So much we share indeed, Just ripe and blossomed, lovely yet in dirt You lay so broken, lost of innocence, Devoid of life, molested by the world. O saintly rose! How you affect me so! Into the fields I ran, to verdant groves, There Life did wait so patiently for me. Yet I did find inside the forest there A wall of stone so tall, no end in sight. I ran along the edge to see if there Would be a break among the bricks to cross Into the rustic countryside of France. I sought until a sentry caught my eye, Whose garb did indicate to me that he Was soldier to the King Louis himself. “Oh sir if you could be so kind to tell Where can I find a port to which I can Exit this hellish city filled with plague?” To which the man responded with the words: “Oh sweet child, I am sorry, truly. This is my post and I cannot permit The citizens of that city to pass Lest they might spread the plague to country fast. Do sit and wait here, I will get you food.” There I did sit upon the earthen ground, And sent my eyes to look there heaven-bound, The sky, a sanguine hue, did catch my eyes, A fitting color for the day’s events. Though warmth was brought into my heart for once I heard that sailors have a rhyme that says; “The sky is red Thus hope is had, If this is seen Upon the night, The morn be bright!” And as I looked into the crimson sky A weariness did creep upon me then, And sleep did pull me through, inside a dreamless sea. August 2nd 1720: I woke so dazed into the mid of night, To see a silent world that seems so strange. My senses dull, my head heavy as if, Perhaps, a draught of nightshade runs its course Throughout my many veins and arteries. I look about to figure where I am, A forest dark, I see, surrounds me now. I look to my left, there the sentry sleeps A basket of uneaten food near him. The only light amid the darkened wood A single lantern, shuttered, barely glowing Leaving shadows dancing on the darkness. The midnight breezes running through the trees. The leaves there shaking, making that sweet sound, As if the forest gives it’s mighty breath And sleeps with us, it breathing in and out. Yet here amid the howl of wind there is A sound of such unnatural design. Its source must be so deep inside the woods The sound of creaking, breaking branches, there. Perhaps an evil dryad roams about! Or maybe faerie sprights do fly around. Perhaps an ancient daemon spies on me, It plotting how to snatch me in the night. My heartbeat quickens as the sound grows near, Closer, closer, nearly at the edge now. Louder! Louder! Branches breaking near me… I close my eyes in fear of what I’ll see And hear do I the sound has disappeared. A second passes, I begin to peak. Relief! A laugh escapes my mouth for it Is but a wayward fox roaming around. The silence reigns, an owl’s hoot resounds… Again I sent my eyes searching to see The Archer- in the greatest vale, he hung Amidst the sable curtain in the sky- As if to shoot his light upon the Earth, So beautiful the stars that fill the sky. I tried to raise my-self to stretch a bit But once I moved an inch I felt sharp pain Inside the grove between my arm and torso. I felt around that area to find A large round lump, sensitive to the touch. I cried immediately, for I know This is the surest sign to which one knows That one has the affliction of buboes. My hope, or what was left, deserted me, My eyes then fill with tears of my remorse, Quietly I cry the Ave Maria Yet, while I beseech God with my frail lips My heart is silent as I soon will be. And like the darkness, hopelessness engulfs It blankets me until I fall asleep…. The bells awoke me to a morning bright, Their sound emitting from the distant burg. A chorus chiming of beautiful birds Did fill the air with their great joyous song. The smell of crisp morning air on the breeze- All this was ruined by the bitter thought. What is there but to sit and accept fate? Yet rather than submit to my own fear I pretty myself, like a queen, before The Lord does take my soul to purgatory. There is no option left for me to take But sit and wait for that Angel to come, And on his mighty pinions fly to bliss. Yet in his place does travel near to me The one who instills fear into my heart That messenger of Hell, the sable prince! And in this moment all becomes so clear; I know that Death is out to collect dues And on his list am I—and now he comes. I have the strength to neither run nor flee So sit do I as he stands at my feet. The mask he wears upon his face, so black And twisted, truly ugly. “No!” I cry, As he then reaches down to kill me there. But wait, no harm is felt in his soft grip. So odd, this is not what I expected From one so steeped in taking others’ lives. To satisfy my curiosity I looked upon his sacrilegious mask And to my shock I found there human eyes, Such true remorse did I see deep inside Those normal eyes, not daemon black but blue! My pulse did quicken as I said aloud: “Are you not the ghost, the agent of death?” “Of course I’m not my sweet, I’m just a plague doctor.” Featured Image: The Plague in Marseille in 1720 Corey J. Browning is a poet from Brooklyn, New York who finds inspiration in the poetry of classical writers such as Dante Alighieri, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, and John Keats. He has written previously in historical journals such as “The Casebook Examiner” and “Ripperologist.” Corey is currently working towards a degree in English Literature at the City University of New York. Views expressed by individual poets and writers on this website and by commenters do not represent the views of the entire Society. The comments section on regular posts is meant to be a place for civil and fruitful discussion. Pseudonyms are discouraged. 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