If you lived in the idyllic village of Eyam in England in the final years of the seventeenth century, and you woke one glorious morning to a warm breeze caressing your light cotton shift, and you smelled the sweetest aroma you could imagine, you were well and truly doomed.
As you were probably not a trained medical professional or even a soothsayer with a set of rotting rabbit’s feet hanging off your belt, you didn’t necessarily know that your internal organs had begun to rot away inside you, and that that was what you were smelling, in contrast to our own pandemic, where you would have rotted away in a non-olfactory, carefree way.
But you would soon know that not everything in your country garden was as rosy as you would’ve hoped, as the faint airs of the deadly rhyme find your ears on the cool morning breeze.
A pocket full of posies
A tissue, a tissue
We all fall down.
This last bout of the Great Plague was particularly severe, and hundreds of thousands of victims could tell you that had they not suffered prolonged and agonizing deaths while trying to recite the full list of Charles II’s mistresses in a vain attempt to keep the hovering scythe at bay.
While Old Rowley was rutting merrily away in a triple alliance with the Swedes and the Dutch, the village of Eyam was in trouble.
After a London merchant had sent his ex-wife and her new lover a 'surprise' roll of material for their favorite wing-back, and with it a host of hungry Cockney fleas, Eyam had succumbed quickly to the ravages of their own deadly pandemic.
Eyamers had abdominal pain while relieving themselves on their worm-eaten wooden jakes, severe diarrhea as they supped their pottage, dizzying nausea and vomiting during a game of Fox and Geese, a hot fever while indulging in one of Playford’s country dances, subsequent exhaustion from all that dancing, and finally shock, as they started to bleed uncontrollably from orifices previously not orifices. Then they turned gangrenous-black all over and promptly died.
It wasn’t pretty, the Plague.
After two hundred or so villages had expired, including, some would say thankfully, the annoying fustilarians and fopdoodles who always fringed any seventeenth century enclave, Eyamers, led by their courageous minister and community leader, decided to take matters into their own hands.
And so, one sunny Derbyshire morning, as the cock crew loud and the turkeys gobbled with delight at the prospect of seeing-in the new year whole, the villagers laid out boundary stones around the entirety of their settlement, and faced whatever the Plague had to offer the well, the sick, and the almost-dead.
In doing this, the villagers were essentially isolating in an even higher level of lockdown; removing any contact with anyone outside of their extended bubble, and finally closing down all the meeting places that the villagers were trying to pretend didn’t spread plague. Like schools, salons, and food delivery services.
In money-holes cut into the boundary at regular intervals, vinegar-soaked coins were left to garner periodic supplies from passing merchants, and keep the spread of the rampaging pandemic at bay.
But, like today, not everyone was enamored with this quarantine plan.
Tryphena Hatt (which is a good seventeenth century moniker, and shall serve us well as her real name has unfortunately been lost over the years), for example, was not a happy Eyamer.
Feeling peckish, and after months of self-isolating with rancid-smelling, past-their-sell-by-date, maggoty parents, Tryphena grabbed her indispensable and headed to Tideswell, about five miles away. She didn’t know anyone there, and hoped no-one would know her either, so she could shop freely without being reported and fined.
She walked toward Foolow first, where she ate some berries and met a monk, then on to Wardlow where she ate a monk and met some .. I’m kidding, I’ve no idea what route she took or who she met, but she got herself to Tideswell in time for a warm pint of cock-ale.
Once there, she headed for the market, where she hoped to blend in and snap up some bargains with her half-groat. She glided from market stall to market stall, handling the plums, squeezing the buns, fingering the pies, until, by dint of fate, she was recognized.
And the Tideswellians were not amused.
They threw mud at her (which she tried to dodge), and food (which was weird, and she caught that), and verbally abused her by shouting very uncreatively, ‘the plague, the plague’, and then drove Tryphena out of their village and into the wasteland of a bit of countryside nearby.
Generally, though, everyone acquiesced and stayed put, trusting their fate to nosegays, fresh-air sermons, their omnipresent God, and Bach’s Rescue Remedy. None of these worked, of course, except the last one, which kept them relaxed during their busy day and less frustrated with their daily commute.
The fleas enjoyed their vacation enormously, and death trundled on.
Food was scarce, company getting scarcer. Bridge fours became patience ones, and pub quiz teams were torn asunder. Men were forced to do laundry, wash dishes, take out the trash, and cook food. Women just carried on as usual, until they dropped dead.
And then, one evening, Eyam sat down to a plate of ambergris and tansy-bread pudding, and realized that everyone was there. Which meant they’d beaten it, and stopped the plague in Eyam.
And in Derbyshire.
And, though they might not have realized it at the time, in England.
Eyamers slowly returned to their peaceful country life, tending their gardens, mixing their dough, eating their children. And all the while in a small hollow on Higger Tor, a muddy woman chewed her gizzards and plotted.
Tryphena's fate seems somewhat less important to us now, than, say, paying our rent without the prospect of work, government subsidies, or any future whatsoever without a second vaccine to work on the newer strains of our Covid tormentor. But there will be a lot of Tryphenas to deal with once we get this pandemic under control.
These are my neighbors, who still say a plot is afoot. The mailman, who told me he knows no-one who’s died of Covid at all. My acquaintances from around the world, who believe the counts of death are inflated for some as-yet unexplainable reason. And my friend, who believes this is just part of the inevitable power-march of the Illuminati, who want us trodden down and desperate in order to .. well, we haven’t got that far yet, he’s still working out the full conspiracy.
And Tryphenas will not go away.
They will haunt us for the rest of our lives. Our children will talk about them, our grandchildren will write about them. And at some point, a rhyme will be coined, that’ll be sung across the lands, and reach you just as you wake, in your freshly-scrubbed house, with the wind-generated electric air purifiers, and ever-changing, solar-powered antibacterial surface films.
A text full of positives
A respirator, a respirator
They all fall down.
photo by Tatiana Twinslol