As we were finishing our meal, I asked him again about the village up the road. This time I got an answer. “There’s sickness there.”
“What kind of sickness?”
He shrugged and shoved a whole tortilla in his mouth. He chewed for a few minutes before answering. “Might be one of those new things, might just be typhoid fever. Who knows?”
“But it’s not a Singularian town, right? They won’t try to kill me if I’m not one of the Elect?”
He assured me that the only danger was disease, which I found oddly comforting. There would probably be no danger in just riding through. But I would take the precaution of not interacting with anyone until I got farther down the road.
While the hermit went back to his prayers, I washed our few breakfast dishes and loaded my gear. I went back inside to thank him and wish him well, but he didn’t even bother getting up from his altar, and merely nodded and waved a hand in my direction.
I hope that among his other prayers, he’s praying for better manners and a bit of patience.
When I arrived in town, it was clear that what the hermit had said was true. The place was under self-imposed quarantine, with most of the buildings closed and shuttered. There were hardly any people on the streets, and what few there were had scarves or masks covering their nose and mouth. As a precaution, I took my bandana and did the same.
I had hardly reached the outskirts of town when I came across a little girl struggling with a burro. The animal was loaded with bags and parcels, and several of them were slipping. A bag of cornmeal had tipped and opened, making a trail along the road.
I jerked on Flecha’s reins and jumped to the ground. “Do you need help with that?”
The girl seemed grateful for assistance, so I unloaded the various bundles, considered their size and weight, then loaded them all again, tying them down tight so they wouldn’t slip.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I kind of figured that. Where’s home?”
The girl motioned in some vague direction.
“You do know how to get home, right?” When she nodded, I asked, “Is it far? Would you like me to go with you and make sure everything’s okay?”
The girl accepted, and we walked our animals along the road. I tried to engage her in conversation, but she was shy and answered my questions in only single words or gestures, so I finally quit pestering her and we continued in silence.
It was a nice day to be walking. The air was crisp and cold, but the sun warmed us and melted the drifts of snow at the edges of the road, making muddy rivulets across our path. After awhile, we turned onto a narrow wagon track that wound through the aspens and yellow pines, finally ending up at a little cottage made of field stones and cut logs. We went around to the kitchen door, where I began taking bundles off the burro and handing them to the girl to carry inside.
After a few minutes, an older boy came out to help. He was flushed and glassy-eyed, and suddenly I realized what should’ve been obvious before. No one sends a tiny girl alone into town to buy food unless everyone else in the family is too sick to go, themselves. Luckily the boy seemed to understand that he might be contagious and didn’t approach me. I handed items to the girl, and she gave her brother the heavier ones, which he staggered with into the house. I found his diligence admirable, but no way was I getting any closer than I had to.
When we were finished, the boy stood on the step, sweating and swaying, holding onto the door frame for balance. “Thank you,” he said. “I would offer you food or money, but. . .”
“I wouldn’t accept it. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”
I was turning to leave when a thought struck me. “Would you like me to put that burro up for you? I could check on your other animals too, if you like.”
“You should leave. There’s sickness here.”
He said it like it wasn’t already obvious. “I’ve exposed myself, already, and unless the animals have it, it’s no trouble.”
The boy nodded and seemed relieved. He looked at his sister. “Go with her, Barbara. Watch what the lady does, in case we’re not better tomorrow and you have to do it.”
I motioned for the girl to follow, and we took the burro to the barn. I showed Barbara how to brush its coat and made sure she understood how to feed it. I also checked the animal’s hooves and found a loose shoe, which I told her to mention to her family. “But don’t mess with a horse or donkey’s feet on your own, okay? You might get kicked.”
Then we checked on the other animals—a couple of bigger donkeys, a horse and some goats. There were chickens, too, but Barbara was very clear that they were her responsibility. Since chickens had been one of my first jobs as a kid, I figured I could take her at her word that she knew what she was doing with them.
It was almost noon by the time we were finished, and I was hungry. But I didn’t want to stay and eat, even though I was sure the family wouldn’t have thought it odd if I built a fire and ate out of my own packs. Instead, I washed my hands at the well, using lots of the lye soap Barbara brought me, then got back on the road.
I nibbled on nuts, dried fruit and jerky as I rode along, wondering just how far the sickness had spread. My experience is that there’s not usually a lot of interaction between the people of different mountain villages, but the towns on the main road tend to receive fairly regular traffic from travelers. Quarantines can help, by alerting people not to stop in a place where there is sickness, but it only takes one person to break the quarantine and spread it to the next place up the road.
With this thought in mind, I made camp for the evening in the woods, well off the road and away from people.
I gathered some pine needles and boiled them for their vitamin C, which is an important medicine that Auntie always swore by. I also stripped some aspen bark, in case I might need it later for a fever.
I was tempted to kill a rabbit so I could have some fresh meat, but I hated the thought of wasting any of it. I can’t eat a whole rabbit in one sitting, and packing it in snow to take on the road tomorrow seemed like too much trouble. I ate out of what was in my packs and hoped the next town didn’t have sickness too, and I could buy some food.
It’s a nice night tonight, with a clear black sky and stars so bright and close it seems like you should be able to touch them with your fingers. I bet they would feel cool and rough, like little pebbles.
◄ Previous Entry
Next Entry ►