“The rules aren’t there for punishment,” they were all constantly told, each reminder delivered with a complete lack of sincerity, “but as a deterrent. To hide the plague-ridden threatens us all.”
Go tell that poor mother that this isn’t a punishment, thought Turlough Hylle. Try as he might, even with a third slug of poitín burning its way through his innards; he couldn’t shake the last image he’d had of those poor unfortunate souls. The last thing he’d seen as he’d lifted the hammer to nail the last plank across the window were the bright matching blue eyes of Ciara and her infant Bradan staring helplessly back at him. Not the pleading eyes of a mother begging for both their lives, just the blank and tired expression of somebody resigned to their fate. That somehow made it that much worse.
Turlough placed the small pottery beaker down on the table and looked around the inn, his heart aching. There was not a person in here that had not lost a friend or a family member in this latest visitation of the plague, and the mood in here was a sombre one. As little as ten days ago the inn would have been filled with both people and music – somebody would be playing a harp or beating on a bodhrán, and there’d always be someone who’d had a little too much of the strong stuff merrily singing along. Now the only music was that of a broken voice singing a haunted and mournful lament to the dead. The few occupants stared down at their drinks so as not to meet each other’s gaze, and a fog of thick pipe smoke clung to the rafters like a rain cloud.
There was a constant air of unease, the fear that any one of them could be carrying the accursed plague, hiding the tokens from God beneath their clothes – those foul black blisters that were a visible sign of the pestilence.
As Rowland’s Chief Enforcer, it was not wise for Turlough to be seen drinking this late at night – especially some illegal concoction from a hidden still that his employer was trying to either close down or tax – but the mood he was in, he was passed caring.
He’d spent the evening trying to remind himself that he’d only been doing his job but it did little to assuage his guilt he felt. Everybody knew the rules – if you knew of anybody in your family who had contracted the plague, you had a day to report it to the necessary authorities – which in this case would have been Turlough or one of his men.
A few months earlier – in a desperate attempt to stem the flow of the plague– Dublin had held a general assembly of council members, landowners of adjacent ground, sheriffs and wealthy residents in which they’d determined that the concealment of the plague-stricken was largely responsible for the countries failure to contain the disease. They had all mutually agreed on a decree whereby failure to alert the authorities would be punished.
It was ultimately up to the sheriff – in this case their Protestant landowner Rowland Gibbs – to determine the punishment of any found breaking this law. A certain leniency could be given in that the afflicted could be sent to a “plague house” and their family exiled, but as the Abbeylands had no such building, no such compassion could be granted.
Muttering a tiny curse towards Rowland, Turlough looked to the ceiling before taking another sip of poitín. He winced at the strong peppery taste as the familiar warmth slid down his throat and into his food-starved belly.
It’s said that one day when the Devil scratched his arse and picked his nose, Rowland Gibbs fell out – the townsfolk just hadn’t figured out which end he’d emerged from yet.
It wasn’t uncommon for a town as small as theirs to have no provision to hold the plague-stricken, but in the case of the Abbeylands, the absence of such a building was down to Rowland’s greed. Gibbs had inherited the deeds to the Abbeylands and some of the surrounding land barely a year ago – won in a drunken card game, it was rumoured – and since then had seemed insistent on making everybody’s life as miserable as possible.
Taxes had risen twice times under Gibbs in just that short period, and an already poor populace were suffering. Their only church – traditionally the heart of their community – had fallen into disrepair, the usual funds for its upkeep diverted into adding yet another room or outbuilding to Gibb’s already oversized house at the top of the hill. He had also refused to contribute towards converting one of the many vacant properties into a building to house the plague-sick. The townsfolk had even begun to organise to do the work themselves, even with their own limited funds, but Gibbs had outright forbid it.
“We’ll have no nest of filthy plague-bearers in my town. God looks after his own – the cleanest of us.” he had insisted. Yet despite this, the plague still came.
Gibbs had furthermore dictated – as was his right, however, unworthy he might be of it – that there’d be only one kind of punishment for those who’d secreted the plague-sick, and it was the cruellest punishment of all.
Today was the fifth time that Turlough had carried out the act, and the very thought of it sickened him.
They called it “The Sealing.”
The plague-sufferer and their entire household (whether showing signs of infection or not) would be taken to their place of residence. The contents of the house – all furniture, personal belongings and food – would be removed and burned. Turlough and his enforcers would then begin the unpleasant process of fetching thick pieces of timber from the stores and nailing them over all the windows and doors, sealing the occupants within.
For the first day and night, you’d hear nothing but the sounds of scraping from inside with the occasional thumping as the occupants tried to scratch or push the planks away. There would be swearing and the occasional cry for help, the calling of their neighbours’ names – usually seeking food, water or assistance – and despondent sobbing.
From Turlough’s experience, the activity from within those dark light-shunned rooms would peak around a day after the initial incarceration. The cries would become more desperate, the attempts to break the wood stronger and more determined. It’d be around then that a number of things invariably happened.
The first was that realisation would finally dawn on all of the building’s occupants that nobody was going to help them and that there was no means of escape. By this stage, it was also very likely that the sufferer that they had been trying to hide had succumbed to the plague and died.
The second was that the disease that had been trapped in there with them would now start to take effect – if it had not already – on the other occupants.
The Black Plague is a cruel and painful way to die. It starts with weakness, trembling and the sweats, but over time, the visible signs appear. “Buboes” appear on the body, typically under the armpit and around the groin – sensitive and painful blue-black swellings. Turlough had noticed that people had started to nickname these “God’s tokens” because God would soon take the sufferer once they appeared. He’d heard tell that sufferers would begin to reek of death, a foulness indicating that the poor soul with the blight was rotting from within.
People were forbidden to assist them, lest they be subject to the same punishment. They weren’t even allowed to acknowledge that the occupants of the house even existed, prohibited from speaking to them to even offer words of comfort.
The next day or two would be considerably quieter. The stronger of the afflicted might be still trying to find a means of escape, but the only sound was usually the noise of the sick vomiting or coughing up blood. At this stage, any movement by the affected would be utter agony, so they’d invariably die where they were slumped. The occasional prayer might be cried out in desperation. This wouldn’t be a plea to be healed – the time for that had long gone – but a heartfelt prayer for a quick and painless death.
By the end of the third day, all would be quiet.
Eighty days later Turlough and his men would pry the planks of wood away from the windows and doors and place them back onto the cart, where they’d be taken away for the next time. The victims would usually be found huddled together in the same room, shrivelled corpses sprawled and lying in scattered black patches of dried blood. Their corpses would be burned on the same patch of blackened grass that once served as the pyre for all their worldly goods.
Many of his colleagues protected themselves with prayers at both the beginning and the end of the incarceration process. People had even taken to burning aromatic woods around these charnel houses – anything to prevent breathing in the sick miasma. Turlough, however, was a practical man and, although possessed of a great faith, preferred to rely on a good old-fashioned cloth around his nose and mouth to avoid breathing in the sickness.
With Ciara and Bradan, this had been the fifth sealing he had done in as many weeks. The boy was badly infected – the boil on his neck so outsized that it tilted his tiny head – and it looked as though the mother hadn’t eaten in days through worry. Turlough suspected that neither mother nor new-born would last through nightfall.
Turlough looked down at his empty beaker and considering topping it up again from the earthenware jug at his side. It was rumoured that if you drank too much of the stuff, you could go blind. Turlough wondered, considering the things he’d seen, whether that would a small mercy. When God was taking innocent babies through The Great Mortality, what chance did any of them stand?
Regardless of whether he stayed for another or not, he vowed he’d walk the long way back to his home – he didn’t think that his heart could stand the pain of risking hearing a sound from the imprisoned mother or child.
Turlough stared at his shaking hands in the illumination of a single shaft of sunlight; the tips of his fingers reduced to stumps, fragmented and shattered fingernails glistening with blood. The thick black plank that blocked his way had barely been touched; narrow, uneven scoring flecked with red dots traced across a narrow patch of it.
He staggered backwards, wracked with pain. His breathing increasing in pace, he looked down at his body – now a mass of black and blue boils, rubbing painfully across each other with every movement he made. The sunlight glinted off the pearlescent surface of each one and Turlough could do nothing but watch in revulsion as they began to swell and inflate.
The foul and viscous liquid contents of the largest, an obsidian sphere the size of his head, yearned for escape. The membranous skin strained until it could be stretched no further, and Turlough shrieked a gargled cry.
Turlough sat up with a start knocking the now empty earthenware jug from his lap and onto the ground, where it fell in two pieces with a single crack. The scent of the vile potato whisky filled his senses but no liquid spilled forth, having all been drunk by Turlough the evening before. The soreness in his head and the hollowness behind his eyes was a testament to that.
Groggily, he looked about himself. He was inside his barn and slumped back against the far wall, so he’d at least managed to stagger home in the state he’d drunk himself into. The door lay ajar, and his bed remained untouched. Steadying himself with one hand on the floor and another on the wall, he slowly stood up and swayed unevenly on unsteady feet. With two unbalanced lurches forward, Turlough collapsed both face-first onto his bed and into a deep sleep.
He woke from a mercifully dreamless sleep to the sound of a loud shouting voice and a hand shaking him by the shoulders. By the time the clarity of the outside world had reached a certain stage, he could make out that the voice was insistently shouting his name. The blurred face he’d turned over to stare at was Feidhlim, one of his fellow enforcers, who was looking down at Turlough with a concerned expression of urgency, all the time silently mouthing at him to stand up.
It took a few moments for Turlough’s addled brain to work out that the shouted voice was coming from elsewhere and not from Feidhlim at all, and with a sobering horror, the truth dawned on him. He sat bolt upright.
Sheriff Gibbs was pacing up and down the floor of Turlough’s tiny home, his ordinarily ruddy face now beetroot purple with rage. Upon seeing Turlough was awake, he stormed over and glowered down at him.
“Another useless bloody drunken Taig!” he spat, flecks of spit raining over the semi-conscious Turlough. “I needed you hours ago, and yet here you are, asleep in your damned pit.”
Turlough raised a weak arm in protest, but Rowland pushed it away.
“If it’s booze that’s keeping your from your work, I’ll keep your coin for this week. If you’ve money for drink, I’m paying you plenty too much.”
He stood up and turned away from Turlough.
“And just be glad I don’t keep your coin for the month. Get yourself cleaned up, and I want to see you at the house for…”
He stopped abruptly, and without another word quick-marched to the doorway of the house where Turlough had been slumped for most of the morning. He turned back to him holding one-half of the cracked earthenware jug, a self-satisfied smirk on his red pig-like features.
He held it up to his nose, a knowing look in his eyes, and sniffed it deeply before turning away from it in mock disgust, eyebrows raised.
“Poitín!” he snarled, “Damned gut-rot! Begone with your blasted moonshine!”
He threw the jug onto the floor where it shattered into a dozen or so more pieces. Apoplectic with anger now, he marched back to where Turlough sat. If Gibbs wasn’t quite so powerful, the sight of this purple faced fat man might almost have been comical. If the Lord God had any mercy, he’d have made the evil squat fellers heart pop right there and then.
“You’ll tell me where you got this damnable poison from if you know what’s good for you, so help me God!”
“Found it,” came the reply from Turlough, the words slightly slurred. He couldn’t look Gibbs squarely in the eye.
He’d never seen Gibbs looking quite so angry – a few of the veins in his forehead were now protruding so much it looked like he was smuggling twigs in there. He breathed deeply before leaning in, their faces now almost touching, and Gibbs’ voice reduced to a menacing snarl.
“You’ll tell me where you got it from, by God,” he said, prodding a finger into the top of Turlough’s chest, “or I’ll turn over every home in Abbeylands until I find that still and exile every uncivilised Taig bogtrotter that I find there.”
Turlough knew that, for all of Gibbs pretence, the oaf didn’t want to know where the poitín came from so he could ban it. He knew that Rowland would be well within his rights to levy a tax on the sale of it – a nice little earner for the vile little money-grabber. The still belonged to an old fella who distilled the stuff in his basement – if Gibbs decided to search out for it, he’d find it in no time, and the elderly Padraig Kavanagh and his wife wouldn’t survive a single night of being exiled.
Almost on cue, Gibbs changed his tone, and his grimace turned into a smile. Looking at that row of yellowing teeth, Turlough didn’t know which expression he hated more.
“Of course,” said Gibbs, straightening the collars on Turlough’s filthy shirt, “I don’t want to have to do that. If you tell me where you got it from, I can come to an arrangement with them, and there’s no reason you can’t still have your poitín. Do I make myself clear?”
Turlough nodded, and his face fell. Gibbs stood back up, rubbing his hands together, one eyebrow raised in anticipation. Turlough glanced over to Feidhlim, who was glaring back angrily, fearful of what he would say next.
“I…I was wrong, Mr. Gibbs,” said Turlough, mournfully, “I was wrong to try and hide it from you. Of course, I’ll tell you where I got the poitín from.”
Gibbs placed his hands on his hips and glared at Turlough.
“Truth be told, Mr. Gibbs,” he said, bringing himself up to his feet. Turlough was a stocky and well-built man, as taller than Rowland as Rowland was wider than he was. He hadn’t been given the role of Chief Enforcer for his charm with the women or his ability to hold a drink, after all.
“Truth be told, Mr. Gibbs,” he repeated, looking his taskmaster square in the eye. “I got it from a pal visiting from Kenmare.”
Gibbs glared back at him. His mouth opened as though to say something but he merely stood there for a few moments incredulous, looking to all the world like a landed fish straight from the brook.
“If you want,” smirked Turlough, “I could ask him where he got it from. You know, if he passes through again.”
“Tomorrow morning!” barked Gibbs, turning on his heel, “I want you at my house as soon as the sun rises, and not a moment later!” Feidhlim looked over at Turlough with a gleam in his eyes, struggling to keep a straight face. The two of them exchanged a wink, and he hurried back after Gibbs, closing the door carefully behind him with a final smile.
“FEIDHLIM!” screamed Gibbs, the sound of his shouting vanishing into the distance.
Turlough rolled his eyes and fell backwards onto the bed, breathing a huge sigh of relief.
Gibbs was as petty as he was cruel, and the sunrise saw Turlough tasked with the unpleasant job of cleaning the latrine pits from his master’s estate. “For a man living here alone,” thought Turlough, “he certainly produces a fair lot of shite.”
It was nearly noon when he saw Feidhlim leave the house, no doubt given another petty task from the Sheriff. The two nodded at each other, and Turlough stepped closer, his hand outstretched.
“I’ll stand me distance if it’s okay with you, Turlough” chirped Feidhlim as he backed up, “I think you’ve inadvertently found a way to spare yoursel’ from the plague. The Grim Reaper himself wouldn’t dare go near you smelling like that.”
“Did you go near Ciara’s house today?” asked Turlough.
“I did, yes.”
“Did you hear anything?”
“Aw Jesus, Turlough. You don’t want to be asking questions like that.”
“I need to know, Feidhlim.”
Feidhlim looked at the ground and then back at his old friend. There was sorrow in his eyes.
“I.. I heard nothing from Ciara. But the baby, Turlough, the baby is still crying.”
Turlough put his hands over his mouth and held back a sob. By some cruel twist of fate, Bradan had outlived his mother. Now lay there, dying in the dark, crying for succour that’d never come.
“Oh, Jesus save us” he muttered under his breath, “Jesus save us all.”
Turlough marched towards the door of the house, only prevented from barging in by Feidhlim placing a hand on his shoulder.
“What are you doing, Turl?” he asked.
“This is wrong,” said Turlough, his voice wracked through bitter tears, “I’m away to your man to get this sorted.”
Feidhlim had seen this look on his friend before and knew that nothing he said would change his mind. He nodded and took a step back.
Gibbs was counting coins when Turlough walked into his office. He looked up at his Chief Enforcer and feigned a look of disgust.
“Away with you to get a wash, man. I asked you to clean my latrine, not bring half of the contents in with you.”
“A word, Mister Gibbs.”
“Begone. Will that do?” Gibbs smirked to himself, pleased as punch with his little witticism.
“The baby Bradan. His mother is gone, but he still lives.”
Gibbs shrugged his shoulders and glanced about the room, as though registering his lack of concern to an imaginary audience.
“And this concerns me in what way?”
“This is cruel, Mister Gibbs. We shouldn’t be punishing an infant like this.”
“Punishment, Mister Hylle? The infant has the plague! He’ll be in the arms of the Lord soon enough.”
“Even now isn’t soon enough, Mister Gibbs. Something should be done.”
“And what do you recommend? Cure the child with prayers?”
“We put the baby out of its misery, Mister Gibbs. To let it live another moment is torture.”
“Suffer the little children – Isn’t that what the good book says? Let the child suffer.”
Gibbs was as ignorant as he was cruel.
“Suffer means ‘allow’, Mister Gibbs.”
“And who do you propose we send into that charnel house, Mister Hylle? That festering plague pit?”
A moment of silence.
Gibbs opened a drawer in his desk and slid the pile of coins back into it using his forearm, as though taking his eyes off his wealth for one moment would see it stolen. He closed the drawer and stood up, wandering slowly towards the window.
From here, on top of the hill, they could see the whole of the town. Gibbs had had it built here for exactly that reason – so he could see that which he ruled over. Ordinarily there’d have been a church built here, but Gibbs was having none of that. The church was a squalid dilapidated building hidden in the town itself, the funding it should have received from taxes diverted into increasing the luxury to which Gibbs had become accustomed. It didn’t look like much from up here – an array of featureless ramshackle buildings with black smoke rising from it into the equally grey sky.
“Do you know why we lock them up in their houses, Mister Hylle?”
Turlough knew the actual answer but dare not say it aloud. People were locked up in their houses because Gibbs wasn’t willing to spend a single coin on caring for them – to make their last days on this miserable world tolerable. He remained silent.
“I’ll tell you why. We lock them up in their houses to act as a deterrent, Mister Hylle. The plague comes back time and time again to Abbeylands because they deserve it.”
He turned back to face Turlough, leaning against his desk.
“If a lonely infant crying in the dead of night is enough to remind people that they shouldn’t hide those with the plague, then I welcome it.”
“Let it cry.”
Bradan, burning with a fierce strength that none had expected from someone so young, bawled for his dead mother for not only for that night but also throughout the next day and night as well. The sound echoed around the town, and nary a soul who heard it – save Gibbs – didn’t wince with every new cry or cross themselves with every fresh wail.
It was only in the early hours of the next morning that the noise finally ceased. The nerves of all were on edge until the sun rose, but the house had now fallen silent.
For the next few weeks, the sound of any baby crying – or even the hungry gulls that swept overhead – reminded everybody of that time. With no fresh outbreaks of the plague, it seemed that even Death was sated with his prize of an infant.
Time went on. Winter was upon them when Turlough and his colleagues prised the black timber from the windows and doors. Turlough, as his insistence, was the first inside. In the bare room there they lay together propped against a wall, the nigh-on skeletal gaunt form of a baby grasped in the tight leather skinned arms of Ciara’s corpse. The mother looked at peace, but the mouth of the child was wide open – as though it had finally perished mid-cry.
The remains were burned on the pyre, and Turlough mouthed a special prayer that night as he watched the flames burn down to ember.
Of course, Death is never satiated. It has an endless hunger, and can only be held at bay and never truly repelled. A rumour of a black mark, only partially hidden by clothing. A family who linger in their homes too long, shunning their neighbours. A raid by enforcers that revealed two of a family of five had the curse, God’s tokens already fully formed.
The final judgement against the family, given by the bastard Gibbs and no other, was no surprise. The enforcers didn’t say a word to each other as familiar black plank by blank plank was carried from the cart, and nail after nail after nail sealed the walls and the final fate of the buildings occupants.
Turlough – once through accident, but now through the order of Gibbs – nailed the last plank into place and stared at the man within, already two days gone with the boils. There was no begging or pleading, no sobbing for mercy, just a glance between the two as though there were some unspoken agreement that had taken place.
With the last plank nailed into place, Turlough went back to his home, lay on his bed and lost himself in thought.
He thought about the scathing smirk on the face of Gibbs when the final judgement was decreed, and how – even despite a last ditch attempt by Turlough for leniency – the house was declared to be sealed.
He thought about how easy it had been for the Chief Enforcer to conspire with all the other enforcers, most of whom had lost family and friends. He thought about how easy it was to knock Gibbs unconscious, how heavy he was to drag to the house.
He thought about how easy it had been to sneak Gibbs into the house with all the other enforcers keeping everybody away, and remembered the panicked look on the Sheriff’s face when he realised where he was.
He remembered seeing the family to be interned within, all confined to their house before the deed was done – and more to the point remembered the understanding look in the father’s face.
He remembered hearing the muffled – almost silent – cries for help from Gibbs that were dulled through several layers of folded bedsheet wrapped around his mouth. He remembered him struggling to struggle free from the tight bonds that Turlough had placed him in.
In addition, the most delicious memory of all, he remembered leaning in close to Gibbs and saying three words that caused the Sheriff to sob uncontrollably, his final fate now known to him.
“Let it cry.”
The plague never came to the Abbeylands again. The disappearance of the missing Sheriff was never solved, and the deeds of the land reverted into the hands of another. To say the new owner was kind would be exaggerating, but to his credit, he never exhibited the level of coldness that Gibbs ever had.
Turlough Hylle lived to a ripe old age. Not a great one by today’s standards, but a grand enough one for then. After a certain amount of time after the deed had passed, he’d tell any fella who brought him a drink, and they’d all listen attentively to him. A cynical man would say that the Irish are known for telling their tall tales, but there wasn’t a soul for whom a shiver wouldn’t run down their spine and who wouldn’t be utterly convinced by every word that came out of that old man’s mouth when he came to the end of the story.
“For eighty days and eighty nights I wondered how God would take him. Whether it’d be the hunger or the plague that dragged him off to the hell he richly deserved. I remember it was a cold morning, and the snows had just started to fall when we prised away the black planks and I – as I always did – went into the house first.”
“I knew something wasn’t right when I stepped in there. Where I’d expected to see a pile of corpses, there was something else there. Something thin and blackened, layers of sodden red bedsheets clinging to it like a shroud. An animal that once was once a man that looked up at me with the eyes of Rowland Gibbs sprawling across a pile of the picked shining bones of the plague-dead. A thing covered with the scars of burst plague boils that stretched out an accusing finger towards me before dying. Something that should have died a long time before, that had waited for me, out of sheer spite.”