about the author

Katy Reedy received her PhD in English from Harvard University, where she studied revenge and contagion in Shakespeare’s theater. Her fiction has appeared in Crack the Spine magazine; her nonfiction can be found at the Huffington Post blog. She is an adjunct lecturer at Lake Forest College, and currently resides in Northbrook with her toddler, where she is at work on her first novel.

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Shut In  

Katy Reedy

No one sat next to the girl. A tailor, late for the morning vigil, scanned the crammed room. She hoped he wouldn’t join her.

“Thy will hath become clear,” the priest said. His arms were upraised. His eyes, clouded egg-white balls, looked up at something unseen.

She knew the sacks of rosemary and sage hanging on the white-painted wall, the incense steaming the clear glass, though she looked only at the priest, the wires of his beard catching light even from the distance. She felt for the leather satchel. Inside were the ripped leaves—her mother’s recipes and prayers—and the stolen coins, their chipped angelic faces pressing into the baize lining. It was all she had left, but all she would need, at least for now. Jack was waiting, at Cripplegate, the crop-rowed fields and mills all ahead, the honey-voiced lark winging the deserted lawns and shaded woods that stretched beyond the city walls. She tried not to smell the stink of London wafting in through the parish doors.

The tailor came into the girl’s pew and nodded, his wide nose speckled with pus-clogged holes. She felt her smock sticking to her breasts, the linen itching all the way up her neck. It was her mother’s, the only one left. Then he saw it. The white rod: the plague stick that measured out the safe distance from her, the space that would prevent infection, even though the girl wasn’t sick, just exposed. She could see the images flashing in his brain: her quarantined household, the red cross slimed on the doorway. The tailor walked backwards, then paused to hawk and spit. A bulb of garlic landed on her bench. She’d never have to see him, or anyone, again.

“The plague that rages outside these doors, that rips babe from mother, that ravages virgins in the tomb, so that all do hourly cry out, ‘I am sick, I must die,’ is Thy almighty hand upon our city’s bloated head.”

The girl’s mother was only a girl when they came, when hammers split the parti-colored glass like ice. They stripped the screen, sponged white paint over the Virgin Mother, and chopped the puppet body of Christ off the cross with an ax, a metallic river melting from his limbs. The superstitious Papists had used hidden wires to move Christ’s eyes and mouth. But the girl’s mother kept a piece: the eye-less head, painted white like an egg without its meat.

When the pestilence began, weeks ago, her father took out the head with the linens. Fuel for the bonfire. Her brothers threw herbs into the sky like snow, and the maid and father’s apprentice cut capers, wheeling like it was Bartholomew fair day. Fireworks crackled into flowers of gun-powder, an astringent pulse across the sky. Her mother refused to come out: the head had been hers, and now it was smoke and ash.

“Truth will always out.”

The priest’s lips were blue, even the girl could see this, his face tokened red and black, but he was not counted among the sick. He remained, while others fled. The services continued, though the bells would no longer toll. They had the word, and it was made into flesh, carbuncles burnt to the bone, fat bags of buboes heavy as pendants. The divine had seen it all: the quaking legs, the thick drops on her mother’s palsied cheeks. The servants stepped away. The bird-nosed, masked physician stepped away. She, their first girl, their beloved daughter, she, even she, stepped away, like a rat, knocking into a dish of rose water, but the priest pressed in, and, when the time came, lowered her lids asleep.

The Virgin’s face, flat cheeked and haloed, radiated behind the layers.

The church emptied. The girl picked up her white staff and held it out straight. No one lingered outside any more, except those faceless bodies mingling in the cart, driven to the pit just behind the stone walls. Then, there was the tailor, sputtering into unclean hands. She was glad he wasn’t looking at her, not like before, and she didn’t want to see him, or anyone, but he traced her steps, though already ahead, the dust of the aching city rising, a dandelion pressed to his nostril. She held her rod like one of the blind, moving the air elliptically. Jack and the meadows were just ahead. Needle-thin legs pricked the chapped knob of her ankle and a tiny head rested on her flesh like a pillow. The tailor stopped, a few yards ahead. When she lifted the rod, it seemed to touch the nailed-in shutters of her home. She could almost hear her brothers, their spinning tops and bone-carved dolls clacking on the scoured floorboards, her whole family, what remained of them, shut in the sick house. For a time, she waited like this, strung in place, pole drawn to pole.

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