When my gaze came across the man-sized raven I thought my heart would stop. It walked through the death shrouded streets as if the Grim Reaper could not touch it. A wide brimmed black hat adorned its head, the ensemble filled out with black cloak, black leggings, a touch of white at the cuffs and a ruffle around his neck. Its glassy, oversized eyes stared at everything around it, its long beak as dark as night. There were no wings that I could see. But it didn’t need them. It walked the streets easily, like everyone else, except for all the sick and dying.
The year 1665 had brought with it the Great Plague. Death danced amongst us. It dispensed its evil vapors to invade the unwary and add them to its ranks. It ripped families asunder without rhyme or reason. Its mark upon those chosen distinct and unassailable — black blossoms at the neck, armpits, or groin. Raging fevers and headaches served as teasers of worse to come. Torturous pain twisted through the guts so those afflicted couldn’t forget their coming fate. Then, eventually, mercifully, the End.
And here was a raven, walking among us, its mere presence foretelling more would fall.
I watched it move from house to house. Those that still held life and hadn’t been boarded up to try to hold in the contagion or the ones belonging to those who’d fled the city hoping for fresher air. Its beak was closed tight though there were plenty of bodies it could have chosen to eat from. They were stacked on the cobbled streets waiting to be picked up for burial, the men burdened with the task coming later and later each day as the numbers needed to be disposed of rose.
The smell of rotting flesh, waste, fear and sweat rolled and coiled along the buildings clogging my nostrils, yet it didn’t bother me. There’d been too much of it for too long for me to truly notice it anymore.
My parents were gone, my sisters dead. Rank and privilege had meant nothing in the end. Perhaps this time the messenger had come for me. Or, if I was careful, I could follow it to its master. Perchance it’d show me mercy and take me swiftly rather than leave me to die in agony alone.
The raven’s circuitous route eventually took it to a small cottage beside a church. Once the door was closed I hurried forward to peek inside through a partially shaded window.
The wide brimmed hat came off revealing a head of white curling hair. A strap, previously hidden beneath it, was unbuckled. As I watched, the raven removed its beak and became a man. I recognize him. It was the local priest. His name tickled the edge of my memory, but I couldn’t quite recall it. I did remember it’d been said he was a doctor as well.
I watched him remove moss and herbs from within what I now knew to be a mask. He put them away in a sealed tin, adding bits of this and that before closing it. Then he made notes on an already handwriting filled paper.
A cure? Had he perhaps found a cure? Mayhap the priest had found a way to clear the air to stave off infection. Surely a man of the cloth wouldn’t be like the many who walked the streets claiming they’d been successful, dispensing their supposed wisdom for a fee. Hope rose in my breast, though since the cold had meant little to me this day, I had a feeling it might already be too late for me. Yet to think there might be a way to save those still here, to save brave London from Death’s siege! It made me optimistic that spring might yet come after all.
But as I continued to watch him busily scrawling away, I realized the hope was futile. Whatever method he was trying didn’t work. For there, on his neck, was a red circle which grew darker as I stared.
The priest was doomed.
The man-like raven had been a harbinger, but the message it carried this day hadn’t been for me.