“Miasma,” a short story by C.A. Schaefer

By C.A. Schaefer

Illustration by Carabella Sands
(from Black Candies: See Through)

10-07-2013 042314PMddddjjj

If you could see my face, you would know how white it is. But I do not paint my face like our fine ladies. No chalky lead paint. This is a starker white, never seeing the sun or a smile. Lips dry, bitten bloodless.

The mask has worn deep grooves behind my ears and across my forehead. It is heavy on my skull, my crown of thorns. You will call me a blasphemer—the mask is only leather, eyes glassed in. Nothing so brutal as what Christ wore.

The little children call me The Beak Doctor, and squawk like birds around me. It is only play. But at my feet they throw flowers. They think it will keep them safe.

The beak is really a cone meant to hold clean scents: amber, camphor, myrrh.

Oh, I know how false miasma is. It is not bad air that carries the plague. I could laugh at the thought.

But they do not bring me to laugh. They bring to prod their clothes with my cane, to feel their pulse. They bring me to speak to the dying and the dead, to the children and wives and fathers.

My eyes are so very dark. If you look closely, you will see that they are black. There are no pupils: no point of light to be seen. But they cannot see my eyes through the glass. Only the rare child who looks up into my face can tell.

Mama, the child cries in fright. The mother thinks the child is only looking at my mask and heavy cloak. She tugs the child closer.

You foolish thing, she says. The doctor will only help. Apologize, now. Don’t you know how sick your sister is?

The child says nothing else: fear of a scolding, a quick jerk of the arm, a blow across the ears. The mother turns to me, scraping apologies. She bends her head to me. If I wanted, I would have her neck on the floor, beneath my boot. The child watches me. It looks back down at the ground and swallows. I’m very sorry doctor.

I nod once. She sees.

My hair, too, is black. My lover braided it with roses and carnations: sweet ones, pink as dawn or cheeks that yes, even then were unlike mine. But I had then the light to stir the blood beneath my skin: the reflection of his love painted me. And there were small pots, cosmetics that a woman such as me can use.

They grow dusty with disuse. There is no one now to look for redness in my lips.

Oh, but my hair. That, I will say, was lovely. So long and thick. Other ladies sighed to see me. My love, when it was first washed, loved to part it. He would run the ivory comb through it again and again, spooling me. If he had known how, I believe he would have braided it. As it was he loved to part it, shining in the sun. He embraced it once instead of me.

This is the dearest part of you, he said.

I think you may love it more than the rest of me, I said. I showed him the limbs that had emerged clean from the bath, the breast with its peaky nipple, the thatch of dark fur. Love these, I said, love all of me. He only laughed.

He is long dead.

No, not of the plague. It was quicker, cleaner, more merciful. But he was called upon to die, and so he had to. This city sentenced him as surely as if there was a trial. Accused him of false crimes against this town. My beloved heretic.

It was a kind death, the pastor says to me. Would I have rather boils have sprung up on that beloved skin?


At first, they do not know what is to come. But do they not always truly know, in their hearts? I am astonished when a wife, weeping, covers her face and says, Oh I did not know, does this mean he will die, does that mean I will lose him, who will drive the cart?

He may recover, I say, given time and rest and treatment. Although I know he will not.

The wife wipes the mucus from her face. She has been weeping so long that her face is permanently grimaced. I watch her, astonished that anyone ever found this one a beauty. She readjusts the dirty white cap on her head. She has lost a front tooth. The belly hangs slack: too many times has her husband filled it with his graceless children. They have ruined her. She limps: she fills the sachet as I tell her to. She chews on the balm-mint herself. Perhaps it soothes something I cannot see.

After twelve hours, they begin to bleed from the ears. They are so tired, you see. Their hands sometimes tug at my cloak. That is why the cloth is waxed, so that it will slip between their fingers.

I prod them away with my cane. Once, in fear that he would disrobe me, my cane broke the skin of a man’s arm. It was already fragile. The glands were swelling up and he shook. He trembled so much that he fell off of his bed, twitching by the fire, crushing the dried herbs I had scattered around him. Lavender and blood and the arm, fingers still twitching on the floor.

Saint, they call me. Our lady of the mask.

Sometimes we cover the dying in mercury. It burns. I press my fingers against their lips. Shh, shh. It will only hurt a little. The oven smokes hot. Feed it with more wood. The coal is coming. He will carry in the coal.

Yes, yes. Of course they scream.

I am kind to them, as much as I am capable of being kind.

I tell them this. Do not think of death: think of gold, warm and hot in your hands. Think of silver, or a skein of newly woven wool, a bottle of milk thick with cream. Think of the flowers that grow in the beds in front of the houses. Do you smell mine, my carnations? Yes, papery, the color of fresh blood—don’t think like that. Place the nosegay under your nose. It should comfort your heart.

The heart and its treachery. It is such a simple organ. Even you can understand how it works. But stopped, nothing else will suffice.

I have held men’s hearts in my hand and squeezed to mimic the pumping of the blood. But I do not give life. I am physici epidemeie, the doctor of plagues.


I hear them say the Jews have poisoned the wells. It is the only explanation. God could not have forsaken us as far as this. It must be our mortal enemies, those killers of Christ. They stamp on our grace with their feet. They bring this upon us.

At night I hear can hear the screams from here. The air is thick with smoke from Mainz and Cologne. Clouds swelling with it. The good wives whisper that this extermination will be our salvation.

Flesh snaps and crackles: the teeth break in the fire. I know. How skin can melt to the grinning bone, how the corpse is left spidery, not quite intact.

They burn them alive, you see. The Jews, the patients. Only with the patients, they stop. Usually soon enough. Strange to think of the bodies that we burn and the bodies we heap in our pits, those once-lovely limbs now pitted with smallpox, marred with bloodied drops.

Do not clean the corpses, we instruct them. Sometimes those buried bodies are marred by my mercury burns, a clean trail of fresh scars, the skin rippled and bent, blackened and swollen.

My immolated, my beloved.

I light a pipe and put it between my teeth. The tobacco tastes bitter today. I smoke for them, and they arch their dying bodies up, teeth clenched, to suck in a little of my refuse. I inhale white clouds on their faces.

She is our only child, will she live? The mother tears at her clothes. She will be one of our new saints, a screaming woman in the streets. Does she really think people will stop to hear her brief? That the butcher will halt his knife to listen as her child is carried to her grave? Rather, scatter gold pieces in her wake: then, perhaps, they will mourn.

I have long since ceased to scream aloud.

The mother keeps crying out over the still little child. Only sleeping, now. But I will take her from those kindly arms and breathe smoke and the child will shiver and cough, spit blood on the clean glass that covers my eyes.

I cannot bear it, I cannot.

I cannot stop, you see. I do not know why not. Perhaps because I still weep. Perhaps because of the one child who sees my eyes and flinches away.

The memory of a lover’s body broken by the rack.

My hair aches at the back of my head. My braids are too heavy. Perhaps I will cut them. I am certain they will take my hair if I fall ill. And we do so often, as plague doctors. Our masks protect none of us.

And yet I half believe them—foolishly—that if the mask falls, I too will die. But in truth it is my rage that carries me.


They would burn me if they knew, as they burn the Jews. Or perhaps it would be my body for the rack? The welcoming arms of the iron virgin, her knives and nails? But I will not let them discover me.

The rats live in my house.

My sweet little rats. Their fur is dirty. Their teeth bristle, and they squeak angrily, as if to protest their part in my plan. I feed them with my gloves on. Eyes red and rheumy. They sleep in the folds of my clothes, and in the morning I shake them out. But from them I carry the plague to their hearths.

When one dies I skin it, tenderly, skimming the knife, parting fur from the wet bloody husk. And from then I stretch the small skins out to become a patchwork hood, the lining of new gloves. The patients like to feel my fur, you see, when I deign to caress them. The leather is so sleek and clinical on them, but the fur—the fur is a comfort.


In the morning I rise. I have only one serving girl, one too slow in the head to question me. She brings me a bowl of bread, fresh. Milk to sop it in. Sometimes, a gift of honey or a hank of salted meat. Plague doctors are much prized here. Once, they paid a king’s ransom to free two of us from bandits. Were they not afraid, I wondered, of what the doctors carried with them?

I dress myself in my costume. My fine white underlinen, and then the dress of black lawn. No embroidery or ribbons, no flowers. Over this I put my butcher’s skirt of leather. Over all this goes my waxed cloak, my furred gloves and boots. I braid my hair, place it under a black coif.

Lift up the mask.

In the beak I place dried roses and carnations. It will smell sweetly all day, even as the mask is hot and clammy on my face. Some day it will be too heavy for it to hold me, and I too will succumb to the swollen glands, and a strange bird-like figure will step over me, voice thickened by the mask.

Doom me to the mercury. A bleeding. A poultice. I will thrash beneath him. Will I die? Or suffer unimaginably, leeches thick on my breasts? Paint me with quicksilver, open my veins. Smoke out my disease. None of it will work.

Yes, yes.

I imagine it will be exactly what I deserve.

C.A. Schaefer is a doctoral fellow at the University of Utah, where she has taught creative writing and been a managing editor of Quarterly West. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Western Humanities Review, Tidal Basin Review, Passages North, and elsewhere. She lives in Salt Lake City with her partner and two small beasts.