Short Fiction by Lyndsey Seaborn
Water sprayed up against the rowboat, droplets clinging to hair and clothing. Rosamund licked her lips and tasted the salt of the estuary. The boatman pulled them through the last of the current, veins along his arms stood proud from the strain. The rolling of the tide eased as they settled into the shallowing waters.
Rosamund prised her fingers away from the boat’s edge, her knuckles pale against the wood. She gently flexed them, urging the tension from her body, and placed them on her lap.
“Don’t see many young as you heading out here. Least, not healthy ones.”
Rosamund looked at her custodian, his eyes were hidden behind dark glasses. She turned away,
“There was a call.”
“Aye, but still. Bad enough carrying them across to that forsaken place. Them’s sick of body as well as spirit.”
Rosamund held her coat tighter, avoiding the stare she felt appraising her.
The boat rocked gently as they neared the jetty. A woman was waiting for them; tired eyes peering out from above a mask that covered the lower half of her face. The boatman edged them alongside and looped a rope around the docking post. He held it taut as the woman helped Rosamund up onto the walkway. As soon as she was up the boatman released the rope and began rowing back to the mainland. Few wanted to remain this close to the island for long.
“Welcome Miss Harper,” a muffled voice greeted her, “Journey wasn’t too rough I hope?”
Rosamund shook her head.
“Spring tides can make an awful crossing.” The woman extended a hand to her. “Martha Peters.”
“Rosamund,” Rosamund shook Martha’s hand.
“Let’s get you settled. Quarters are this way.”
Martha turned and headed towards the shore. Rosamund lifted her pack and followed.
They walked along a gravel path that ran parallel to the shoreline. Grey stone buildings closed in around them, cutting off the limited view of the mainland. Metal grilles barred the high windows and lichen crept across the pitted stones. Rosamund hurried to keep up with Martha.
At the end of the path was a smaller building of the same grey stone. Martha led Rosamund through its wooden door and into the single room it housed. Two rows of beds filed down each side, a lock box stood at the end of each row.
“Twenty of us now you’ve joined,” Martha said, as she gestured Rosamund to her bed.
A uniform was laid out across the blanket. With gloves and a mask it looked like the last occupant had melted away.
“We’ve not got much, but do the best with what we have. Just one thing we ask.”
Martha unlocked the nearest lock box. Rosamund peered inside, but could only see the dim outlines of bags. Martha reached inside and handed Rosamund an empty one.
“Everything from before goes in here. You get it back at the end of your term.”
“Before you came to the island. Everything from your old life you brought with you.” Rosamund looked at her meagre pack of belongings looped over one shoulder.
“The clothes too,” Martha gestured at Rosamund’s coat and shoes. “Everything. We provide uniforms and anything else you might need.”
“Seems a little excessive.”
Martha folded her arms.
“Protocols are there for a reason. Can’t risk contaminated items leaving here.”
Rosamund couldn’t argue with that. The mainland had already lost a vast number of the population to the disease; they couldn’t risk reversing the progress that had been made. She dropped the pack onto the bed, there wasn’t any sense in emptying it if everything was only going into storage. When it became apparent Martha was going to wait in the room with her, Rosamund shielded herself awkwardly as she changed into the uniform. Dropping the clothes into her pack, her hand settled on a worn leather wallet. She pulled it towards the opening, its edges were tinged an iridescent green like old meat. Her fingers lingered on it.
“Everything has to go?” she asked.
Rosamund pulled her hand away, and closed the pack. Along with her shoes it went into the hemp bag, and she handed that to Martha. The padlock clicked shut as Martha sealed the lock box. Rosamund pulled on the gloves and lifted the mask into place.
“So young.” Martha frowned at Rosamund. “Much younger than most of us stationed here.”
Rosamund looked down at her gloved hands, rolling the rubber between her fingers.
“Nasty business this plague,” said Martha. “Come on, next shift starts in ten.”
They walked back towards the large buildings with the barred windows. Martha led Rosamund around a side path.
“Hospital’s split between these two buildings,” Martha waved her hand back, “Both the same, you’ll be on shift in whichever one needs you.”
On the far side the island opened into what Rosamund thought might have been an orchard. Most of the trees had been cleared, but a few old and twisted trunks remained along the edge. She could make out a couple of small out buildings the other side of the clearing.
“Cleaning room,” Martha said as they approached a white marquee, its sides tarnished by rain and salt spray.
She stopped and barred Rosamund’s entry.
“Mask and gloves. Before you set foot in here they must be in place.”
Rosamund raised her hands like a surgeon before an operation. Martha nodded,
“Keep to the protocols, keep everyone safe. At least those not sick.”
Martha pulled open the tarpaulin curtain. They walked past tables loaded with soaps and bowls of steaming water.
“Uniforms go in that bin at the end of your shift,” Martha pointed at a large red box just visible through the exit on the other side. “We’ve got coats hung out there so you can get back to the dorm.”
They turned towards the building; another tarpaulin curtain stretched over the grey stone wall. Rosamund looked down at several trays of dark green fluid laid across the threshold. Martha stepped into one, gently rolling her boots through the liquid.
“Be sure you go through the trays on your way out too.”
It felt like thick custard as Rosamund slowly moved her feet in the tray, but it thinned and sloshed over her boots. Soon their pale grey was stained.
“Ready,” she said.
Martha looked at her.
“Always keen in the beginning,” she sighed and led the way inside.
The smell hit Rosamund hard, the rusted iron of blood and the rot of decay. She gagged involuntarily behind the mask. Martha squeezed a hand on her shoulder.
“First breath’s the worst,” she whispered.
Nausea rolled through Rosamund’s body as she looked across the room. Hundreds of cots lined against the walls and central aisles of the building, receding off into the distance. People of all ages, of all backgrounds, wailed and moaned in the gloom. Some sat propped against walls, others could barely raise their heads.
Sunlight filtered down from the barred windows, but couldn’t quite penetrate the darkness. Candles were placed at regular spots along the wall to offer some light to those working their way along the lines of the sick and dying.
“There’s a generator out back,” said Martha, “But we’ve got to conserve fuel. It only gets fired up when we absolutely need it.”
Rationing was in place on the mainland, but Rosamund hadn’t considered the island would also be subject to restrictions.. She looked at each of the faces along the nearest row.
“It’s hard work,” Martha handed her a medic kit. “But you find a rhythm. Serve your term, that’s all they ask.”
“How long have you been here?”
Rosamund could see Martha’s shoulders sag beneath the uniform.
Ribbons of red traced along Rosamund’s fingers and down into the bowl. She wrung the cloth out, leaning across to gently wipe it across the boy’s forehead. It was hard to think of him as anything but a child; the disease had consumed him to such an extent. He was the same age as her brother, had perhaps served with him in the conscription. He mewled as the cloth scraped across his sweat drenched brow. His eyes constantly flickered but never saw. Glassy orbs starred bloodshot from sunken sockets.
“Mmmm,” his parched throat rasped.
“Shhhhh,” Rosamund lifted the cloth away; blood beaded through the skin.
He turned towards the sound of her voice, a hand straining to reach for her.
Rosamund took his hand in her gloves, holding it away from her.
The boy sighed, a rattle in his throat as the twitching of his eyes slowed and his skin greyed. Rosamund quickly closed his eyelids; she couldn’t bear that sightless gaze. She cleared away her tools and drew the bed sheet over the body. They’d be along soon to clear him away. She moved on to the next cot.
“Never gets any easier.”
They were leaning against a wall overlooking the remnants of the orchard. Rows of the cloth bound dead lay across the clearing, waiting for transportation.
“I didn’t expect it to.”
Rosamund watched as a small group emerged from the outbuildings, a wooden box supported between two of them.
“You’d be surprised,” Martha pulled her coat around her bare shoulders. “People forget why they’re here.”
She turned to look at Rosamund, but Rosamund looked away. She watched as the procession approached the dead. From the box, they took handfuls of what looked like dust and scattered it over the bodies. Something to contain the disease in death, Rosamund thought.
“Huh?” Rosamund woke from her observations.
“Goes by quick at first. Then it feels like everyone else’s time goes quicker than your own; soon their terms end and you’re still here.” Martha picked at a loose thread on her cuff. “Not everyone talks about why they’re here, but most do eventually.”
“But not everyone.”
Martha pushed herself away from the wall, crumbs of loose rock sliding down her back. Rosamund followed, after a last look at the peppered shrouds.
They walked towards the jetty and sat with their legs dangling down towards the water below. It was warm enough that they could use the coats as a blanket and let the sun seep into their bare skin. Martha leant back against her wrists.
“They’re all here. My husband, my kids; two of them anyway.”
Rosamund shivered, her skin prickling despite the heat. She looked at Martha, but the older woman was looking across the water. The mainland was still hidden behind the fog.
“We didn’t have much, but it was enough,” Martha pulled a stray grey hair back behind her ear. “When the plague first hit, we didn’t think much of it. Disease had come before and been blown out of proportion. We thought this would be the same. There were rules, but no one followed them closely.”
Rosamund cradled her knees as she watched the water ripple against the jetty.
“My oldest got sick first, then my husband and our daughter. They were brought here,” Martha waved back at the hospital, “but no one ever comes back from here.”
An empty crab shell floated past, knocking against the wooden posts. Rosamund saw threads of flesh wafting in the current behind it.
“After that, I thought we’d been spared. But life’s cruel.” Martha kicked the shell away, but the current soon caught it and brought it back towards the shore. “When my youngest…I couldn’t let him suffer. Not like the others had.”
Rosamund shifted uncomfortably, the hairs on her skin rising. She jumped at the hand that rested on her shoulder.
“We’re all here for our own reasons. This place is a test as much as anything else.”
“What if…what if we fail?” asked Rosamund.
Martha cupped her chin and slowly pulled it around, past the hospital buildings and back to the twisted trees.
The coughing was subsiding, but blood foamed from her mouth. Rosamund grabbed a cloth from the cleaning table and wiped it from Martha’s chin.
“When?” she demanded, as she helped Martha to her feet.
Dull eyes stared back at her. Rosamund shook Martha’s shoulders; more blood freckled her uniform.
“Couple of days,” Martha coughed again.
They were alone in the marquee; the next shift was already underway. Rosamund looped Martha’s arm over her shoulder. She looked at the exit, wanted to make a run. Martha was heavy against her side, she’d never make it as far as the jetty. Even if she did, what then? The boatman wouldn’t be there. Wrenching herself from the temptation Rosamund dragged Martha back towards the hospital.
“Protocols,” whispered Martha.
Rosamund pressed her eyes shut. She’d forgotten the cold comfort of tears.
The water was already warm when Rosamund reached Martha’s cot. Flies lazily reeled above them, settling on any victim left alone too long. She brushed at the air above them and they scattered from Martha’s face.
“Damn things.” Martha was leant up against a pillow, but the shaking was all her body seemed to have the strength for.
Rosamund drenched the cloth in her bowl and gently wiped the sweat and blood from Martha’s face. As she leaned across Martha whispered,
“You’ve never said.”
“Why you came here.”
Martha coughed, and Rosamund jerked back to avoid the spray of blood and phlegm.
“You should rest,” Rosamund dragged a stool to the side of the cot.
Martha smiled at her,
“Not as if I’ve anything to save my voice for.”
Rosamund wanted to deny it, but the lie was too bitter. Instead she took some painkillers from the medic kit and crushed them into a powder. She sprinkled it into a flask of water.
“We carry it with us.”
Rosamund looked at Martha.
“Our baggage. We think it’s locked up…in the dorm…truth is…we carry it. Always.”
Rosamund brought the flask up to Martha’s lips and gently tipped the contents into her mouth.
“My youngest,” said Martha as Rosamund wiped the overspill from her mouth. “His scarf is in my bag. It’ll go with me when I leave.”
“Wallet.” Rosamund pulled her stool closer. Martha looked up at her.
“You were close?”
“Yes.” Once. “He got conscripted. Three years at war.” Rosamund pulled up the blanket; Martha shivered beneath its thick wool.
“War is awful.” She said.
“Yes,” said Rosamund. Everything changed.
“It’s not always easy… to settle back.”
“No.” He never used to hurt us. “And that’s why I came here.” That I might be redeemed.
Rosamund lifted her face to blink away tears; she couldn’t wipe them away with her gloved hands. She glanced down at Martha, but the woman’s eyes were closed. They opened again as Rosamund fanned away the flies.
“It’s hard to accept.” Martha turned her face towards Rosamund. “What we did. What we didn’t do.” A hand struggled free of the blanket, and reached for Rosamund. She cupped it within her gloves.
“When we…can do that…without excuse…we’ll find peace.”
Rosamund let the tears fall. In the room behind she could hear the moans of the dying.
Clouds were rolling over; there would be another storm tonight. Rosamund pulled her coat around her as the wind tried to rip it from her grasp. The estuary swelled and retched against the jetty, but the boatman was as sure as ever. She caught the rope he threw to her and wrapped it around the post. Once the young man was safely up she loosened it, letting the boatman return across the water.
“Welcome Peter, I’m Rosamund. Glad you survived the journey over.”
Peter bobbed and swayed, looking thoroughly sick from the crossing.
“Let’s get you settled.” She guided him along the jetty.
“Thanks,” he mumbled, as he glanced back.
“You won’t see much out there, the Mainland’s usually shrouded in the fog.”
“Oh right.” Peter turned back to her, “How long…”
“Your term. That’s all they ask. Once you’ve served that you’ll see the Mainland again.” Rosamund paused, looking out to the estuary and the grey mist on the horizon.
“How long have you been here?”
“Me? About ten years.”