Daphne heard her left knee click as she gingerly stretched her legs and crawled out of bed. It was even more stiff and painful than usual, but the only strenuous activity she’d indulged in the day before was moving the drying racks from one end of the yard to the other.
She groaned and steadied herself against the wall before continuing on to the kitchen. Every step sent a flicker of pain deep into her joint. The boys would have to help Paige on their own today.
Ephraim and Isaac insisted on setting her up with a pitcher of water and assembling a cold breakfast for her first. They left her sitting in her favourite chair in front of the house with Lemon curled up sleeping beside her.
“How many bodies did you bury with Doc Porter?” Isaac asked once they’d rounded the bend. The last time a serious epidemic had hit Mingus Mountain he’d been too ill to attend the mass funerals and too young to dig graves even if he had been healthy.
“None,” Ephraim said. “There was one guy with a bad leg infection who is probably dead now, but all of the Docs patients were still alive when he sent me home.” Unlike his brother, Ephraim had seen a dead body before it was prepared for the next life once. Old Man Winterson’s nonsensical prophecies had once been the talk of the community. He claimed to speak for the gods, but once Daphne realized that the old man’s message swung from vivid predictions of mass starvation to peaceful descriptions of wolves nuzzling wild hares depending on how recently he’d found something to eat she told her sons to ignore his ramblings. Isaac listened, Ephraim did not. It was because of his interest in Old Man Winterson’s conflicting messages that Ephraim discovered him curled up beside the courthouse, his favourite place for impromptu sermons, one afternoon while bringing a message to one of the adults inside the building. The old man was caked in dust and sweat, but in death his face has lost its fearful, angry edge. If this was peace Abraham had found it.
Isaac was a little disappointed by his brother’s response. The thought of wrapping up a dead baby and burying it creeped him out a little. Yes, it was sad that he died, but this sort of thing happened to almost every family eventually.
The Davenport’s yard smelled like stale urine and rotting vegetables. Ephraim shouted a customary hello as they approached the front door, but no one answered them. The stench grew stronger when they entered the dark, still house. Now a new scent tickled their noses: stale blood.
No one had banked the fire the night before, and the overflowing ashes were cool to the touch. Once their eyes adjusted to the dim light Isaac noticed a small bundle wrapped in a dirty blanket lying on the kitchen table.
“Hello,” said a small voice. Felix’s greasy curls hung limply over his pale face.
“Hi Felix,” Ephraim said as he slid his knapsack to the floor and kneeled down to greet the boy. “We’re here to help your grandmother with something. Can you tell us where she is?”
“Everybody’s sleeping,” he said with a shrug as he motioned to the bedroom. Ephraim felt a chill shudder down his spine as he exchanged nervous glances with his brother.
“Isaac brought you some lunch. Why don’t you two go out into the yard and eat while I wake them up?”
“Ok,” said Felix. He’d long since finished the last of the bread, and when the fire ran out of fuel he couldn’t figure out an alternative way to crack open the small, hard nuts that were all that remained of the family’s larder.
Ephraim rummaged a small lamp from the kitchen, lit it, and opened the bedroom door. He waited for his eyes to adjust before entering the small, stifling room, but immediately he heard the slow crackle of someone struggling to breathe. Nevaeh’s glassy eyes stared through him as he slowly circled the room.
“We’re here to help,” Ephraim said. She didn’t seem to notice he was there. It wasn’t until he knelt down to tuck a blanket around Lucio that he noticed the young father’s blue lips and cool skin. He wiped away a dribble of blood on Lucio’s cheek and gently lifted the blanket over his head. Delphine and their three-year-old daughter, Wilma, were emaciated and sleeping so deeply Ephraim had trouble rousing them, but they were breathing much more easily than Nevaeh. Paige woke up startled when she heard Ephraim talking to the living in a low, steady voice. She was momentarily disoriented, but her fever was mild and her breathing steady. It was funny how this fever tended to affect the young and healthy much more severely than other groups.
Ephraim and Isaac had only intended to stay for an hour,but It took all morning to scrub down the kitchen and quickly bury Lucio and little Malachi. After breakfast and a much-needed bath Felix curled up next to his sister. Ephraim knew the sick should be quarantined, but there were no other safe places for the boy to sleep while the adults worked. If he’d survived this long without catching it he probably wouldn’t get sick anyway.
“They’re dangerous ill,” Ephraim quietly confided to his brother as they lugged the final jugs of dirty water to the edge of the yard and tipped them out. “And I don’t want to risk bringing this disease home to mom. I know this fever doesn’t seem to spread like normal diseases, but the gods could change their minds about that at any point.”
“What will we do, then?”
“We could bring the boy home with us temporarily. He’s healthy and strong for his age even if he’s two-souled.”
“And leave the rest to die?” Isaac couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Ephraim was usually the more sensitive twin.
“No, we’d visit them every morning with food and water before we went out to finish the harvesting. No herb can save them, and if we don’t breathe in too much of their poisoned air we probably won’t get sick.”
“I don’t like the sound of this plan. What if coyotes attack or there’s a fire? They’d never be strong enough to get away from it.”
“Well, what do you suggest we do then?”