EXCLUSIVE | Read a Fiona Melrose short story inspired by the modern plague, Covid-19

29 March 2020 - 00:00 By Fiona Melrose
The Black Death is thought to have killed 60% of Europe's total population in the 14th century.
The Black Death is thought to have killed 60% of Europe's total population in the 14th century.
Image: Keith Tamkei

Fiona Melrose is the author of 'Midwinter' and teaches writing.

In this short story, titled 'A Late-Modern Fairy Tale', she draws a parallel between the current coronavirus pandemic and the Black Death that ravaged Florence, Italy, in 1348: 

Those that get it are dug in to the black, meaty earth before their cheeks turn cold. Sure, mistakes are made, but once you have it you won't be long for the living world. You will, at any rate already feel as though you are being buried alive as it takes you from your toes, and then on up. By the time it hits your gullet you might as well call the Priest.

But, these days, even they are hard to find, being, as they are, either dead or terrified, the jangle of quivering rosaries betraying them all. Those willing to risk it are, understandably, rather over-priced.

Better, then, to make your bargains with the After World. To haggle away a seldom-worn soul is cheap at the price. Some are heard to call out, rather take my mule, my carpets, my wife! It needs a heavier purse than all that.

Even the soothsayers simply do not see it coming

Apothecaries and Future Casters do well on it for this is a city that does not wait, mute and placid, but rather takes an industrious approach, busying itself with every possible stratagem of evasion. But even the soothsayers simply do not see it coming. One of them ate a good breakfast of bread and honey, foretold three bright futures but was himself dug in by noon. Or so we are told.

But coins have two sides. On one side their number and on the other the heads of kings or queens. Just ask the men with shrouds where eyes should be, their bloated bellies so very attentive to the next sausage or egg.

Is it possible that they welcome it, this little squatter, that steals soft lodgings in every last untenanted home? After a little disruption and the initial expense of having to draft in more grave diggers and during which time thoughts and prayers will be offered up with the choke of smoke, this trifling thing will produce the exquisite calm of empty alms houses and prisons. No more beggars caterwauling under the palace gates, lepers, sinners, layabouts, all will have gone to their Reward.

And, one does not wish it on them, no, no, one does not, but there are only so many eggs a hen will lay and there is a limit to the number of sausages that can be wrought from last year's pig.