To celebrate the launch of Punch for Prompt, I’ve set myself a project for the month of March: Create 4 pieces of writing based on Charlotte’s writing prompts.
Last week I posted the short story ‘Will You Help Me?‘
The next prompt I got from Punch for Prompt was: “She lit the candles on the table first.”
My Creativity immediately added, “And then she lit the table!” Although this sounded completely weird, I decided to roll with it and see where it led.
With that beginning, the story could turn either into something funny or something dark. For this story, I decided to explore the darker side.
This story is based on real events, but more about that later.
So, without further ado, here is this week’s short story.
I lit the candles on the table first, for old time’s sake. Then I lit the table.
I stepped back, holding my skirts behind me, as I watched the flames discolour the surface of the wood, turning it black and biting into the cracks between the planks. The wax of the candles began to cry as the heat melted them, their small flames still flickering atop their wicks.
I could hear my husband’s voice in my memory, as if it were yesterday and not fourteen months ago.
“Now children,” he had said, as the first deaths were being mourned in the street. “Remember what the Good Book says. ‘Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire.’”
Each of my five dear children had stared at him, wide eyed – afraid but listening to every word their father spoke.
He pointed to the gentle, glowing candles on our family table. “See these. They remind us of how we should use our tongues. Guard your words. They are powerful things, capable of causing damage far beyond this small room.”
How little those beloved children understood of the horrors we were about to face, and how much we would lose.
Now I watched villagers carrying their clothes, bedding and other belongings out onto the cobbled streets to be burned. The heat of their fires melted the snow, leaving mud.
I admired every resident of Eyam, those living and dead. There was not one coward among them, for which the surrounding villages should be eternally grateful.
My darling Jane walked out of the house, carrying our own bedding. Without looking at me, she threw the sheets and blankets onto the growing flames and then turned back to the cold, empty building that was once full of children’s laughter.
“We shall not speak a word out of place,” my husband had said. He’d firmly believed that one’s thoughts, fear, anger, pain and grief should all be held inside. “For every man shall bear his own burden,” he reminded me one night as I lay across our bed, silently crying. Stoicism was the only way he could hide his dread.
In the evenings as we ate, watching both the candles and our words, the wind would relay sounds from the village street. The wailing, the fear, the death. My sweet children would stare harder at their bowls, wiping the last morsels with their bread and ignoring the adults around them. My husband would look at me, knowing our neighbours’ unguarded words could set their houses, and the whole village, aflame. Unguarded words could turn conviction to doubt, then to panic and then undo all our hard work.
The announcement was made in June. We stood in the green, tree-lined valley for church services, grateful to worship together without touching our neighbours. Proximity brought fear of spreading the plague.
The reverend spoke loudly, his voice carrying down the valley. The town would quarantine itself from the outside world. No one would leave the village until the plague was ended.
There were murmurs, sparks of spoken flames which threatened to break forth. “If the healthy left now, maybe they would be saved,” said some. “Or maybe they would succeed in spreading this blight wherever they went,” said others. Thankfully, the reverend was a persuasive man.
His wife, beloved by the villagers as if she were our own blood, had already been lost to the plague. His children had been sent away to safety in Yorkshire when the plague had first broken out. By supporting a village quarantine, he sacrificed his future with the rest of us.
The obedient eyes and obedient mouths of our household held their silence as we watched neighbours fall, some within hours of the first dreaded signs, others hanging on to the last vestiges of life for three or even four days.
Then one evening, while eating our meal, our children watched their own father fall ill. The candle light flickered as we waited for the inevitable. My pain and grief burned within me, as it did within the children. We buried him quickly and quietly in our garden. He deserved to be presented for burial, to be given a service with mourners, to be laid in the church graveyard, but this was yet another sacrifice made on behalf of the living. As unjust as it may have been, our family said not a word out of place. Not a word as four of my children died, one after the other, leaving only Jane.
As I watched the flames Jane came again, throwing another bundle on the fire. This one contained father’s precious books and more clothing. I watched her turn and noticed the trickle of a tear down her face.
The flames were hot now, violent in their crackling, forcing me to take another step back. I noticed the edges of the paper curl in agony and the fibres of the clothes crumble to ashes. A lone baby bootie, the last reminder of my youngest, was consumed before my eyes.
Fourteen months after it started, when it seemed our small village could bear the ravages of the plague no longer, the reports of deaths began to lessen. A quarter of our number remained alive.
When it became apparent the quarantine had succeeded, the reverend asked one further sacrifice of us – to burn all our belongings. As always, he led by example, burning everything he owned, including his wife’s possessions.
Now the air was heavy with smoke, as each family stared into their own fires and contemplated what they had lost.
Jane’s arms shook as she came down the path for one last time, carrying Elizabeth’s doll and the remaining small pieces of clothing, her face wet from the tears which overflowed from deep within her.
Not fire from within, but water.
What had the Good Book said about water?
“Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out.”
Deep waters. Secret waters left undrawn for too long.
I looked back at the fire; the flames lower now having almost finished their job. The candles were melted beyond recognition, the papers and clothes reduced to ashes and the furniture merely charcoal remnants. But there was a feeling of freedom amongst the pain and loss.
The ordeal was over. We had done our duty. Now we could begin to talk again.
I turned to Jane. She watched the last flickers of fire fade. I put my arm around my daughter, my only remaining kin, and felt her flinch at my touch.
I drew a breath and opened my mouth, ready to use my tongue to begin drawing up deep waters.
The words caught in my throat, held there by the smoke of the dying embers. I felt tears well up in my eyes and my heart, reminding me of my own hidden waters. I pulled Jane closer. We would draw up those waters together.
For more information on the town of Eyam and their quarantine, see this Wikipedia page and this page about the people involved. You can also see photographs of the town here including a plaque commemorating one family’s loss.
Now it’s your turn. Punch for Prompt and see what you end up with.
Next Friday I’ll be posting my next piece. Stay tuned.
March 16, 2012 at 10:01 am
Holy wow this is beautiful. Great job.
March 16, 2012 at 10:49 am
Glad you liked it. 🙂
March 16, 2012 at 10:02 am
Wow, I had a literal tear rolling down my cheek. Powerful stuff.
Love the use of biblical text to help tell the story. Reminds me of the Pagan Chronicles by Catherine Jinks. Helps to invoke the right feelings in the reader for the setting.
I was flabbergasted that you were writing about this village!! I had only just a few days ago stumbled upon it myself – how’s that for coincidence? Found the book ‘Year of Wonders’ on a shelf at the airport newsagent and was immediately fascinated – both by the history and by the stories that could be evoked. How did you come across this village?
March 16, 2012 at 10:54 am
You’re not the only one. My dad cried too.
I’d love to hear more about that book sometime. Sounds interesting!
I wrote the first version of this story with the fire, water and quotes but backstory of the family was very ordinary. I felt it needed a concrete place and time to really tug at the heart strings. So I thought about situations where people would burn their furniture.
I specifically thought of the plague, so I searched for ‘plague burning furniture’ and Eyam was at the top of the results.
The story fascinated me, so I went with it.
March 16, 2012 at 11:05 am
It really does set it perfectly!! So it truly was just a coincidence that we’ve both come across it in the last week?? Fascinating!! I had thought you might have been doing research for a trip or something… or just happened to recently be in an airport and saw a copy of the same book yourself.
I haven’t read the book, just the blurb on the back cover. I am intrigued though, and have plans to investigate the story further (or just read it… that might be the simpler way of doing things… 😛 ).
Well done, excellent story.
March 16, 2012 at 11:18 am
Truly just a coincidence.
And thanks. 🙂
March 16, 2012 at 1:59 pm
It appears I may be the only one present out of all of humanity that has not shed a tear over your masterful descriptions of raw human emotion, Jessica. <)
Nevertheless, what a product of your well-cultivated creativity!
I figure your creative imagination is much like a gelato machine. Whack in any ol' ingredient (Punch for Prompt prompt (say: Pfurpp) ) and *Schpoof!*, out comes an incredibly delicious treat, whipped into delectably creamy perfection by forces not well understood.
Win over the dark side of spontaneous writing, you haz it.
March 16, 2012 at 9:23 pm
Don’t worry, I know there were others who didn’t shed tears. 😉
The trick is to find a prompt that clicks with you. I went through several before I found one I actually wanted to write about.
So I don’t know whether the same would happen if you pumped in ‘any ol’ ingredient.’ But I’m willing to try sometime.
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