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Plague, Leeches, and Raw Fear

I have this annoying mannerism; when I'm anxious about something, I catch myself licking my lips. Licked lips get chapped. Mine are pretty chapped right now, more so than usual. I don't know about you, but I've undergone a series of changes in my thinking and feeling about the global coronavirus pandemic.

First I was pretty cavalier and dismissed the whole thing as a product of media withdrawals after the impeachment frenzy, a media now bored with the race (more of a stagger) for the Democratic nomination; the virus provided a novel, scary story to improve ratings, but nothing really to worry about. As things escalated here in my own region--Seattle, Washington being an epicenter of the US cases and deaths--I found a degree of comfort in the initial fact that the majority of cases and deaths were isolated mostly to the elderly and infirm in one nursing home (I didn't consider myself either elderly or infirm). Then I resorted to tallying the statistics on how many more people died of flu this winter than have died globally from coronavirus.

My attitude toward the virus began to change when I received the first cancellation notification from a speaking engagement where I was scheduled to be key note. And then another speaking cancellation came from a large conferences where we sell more books than any other single venue each year. And then President Trump restricted travel from Europe, and next day, from the United Kingdom. With that news, I was forced to cancel/postpone my Oxford Creative Writing Master Class (we had already cancelled the Rome to Geneva Tour). Now the pandemic was seriously hitting my schedule and our family finances. Then the rush on toilet paper, shortages, long lines, and store closures (a sneak preview of a Bernie presidency). Now in Washington State, by order of our governor, all restaurants and coffee shops are closed, as are libraries, schools, gyms, even churches with more than fifty congregants are closed. We are in lock down.

Which gets back to my chapped lips. This is not the first pandemic in the history of the world, nor am I the first person with chronic chapped lips. Before modern medicine (which is scrambling to figure this disease out), how did people in the past manage their fears during pestilence and plague?

In the following excerpt from my historical novel The Revolt, set in John Wycliffe's 14th century England, my characters stare wide-eyed as the Black Death descends on the terrified occupants of Oxford and unleashes its deadly work:

...I studied the puncture where the leech had drawn his blood. “Will it work?” I asked as we walked down the street back to the hall.

“I say we do an experiment,” said Alfred. “When the pestilence hits Oxford, we’ll watch and see. If it gets you and you die but I live, then I guess we’ll both know that the leech did his work. If we both die of plague, well, we’ll be forced to admit that I just wasted a handful of silver, and we’ll need to be more prudent with our resources in future.”

I shook my head in disbelief. “How can you jest about such things?”

Alfred grinned. “Someone’s got to do the jesting around here.”

So discomfited was I by the friar’s forebodings, and by Alfred’s airy manner at it all, my usual vigilance to avoid street filth slackened. Beneath my feet I suddenly felt an object unlike the usual substances littering the street. This was not slimy underfoot like most street filth encountered on the streets of Oxford. I recoiled. This was firm, but gave way underfoot—and it was still warm. I bent low to discover what it was.

Both Alfred and John turned back. “What is it?” asked Alfred.

“A rat,” I said, my voice little more than a croak. “A d-dead rat.”


The Leech

Willard was not easily frightened. After what he had experienced in the Gallia wars, a stony hardness had settled in. Encircled by the fortification of that hardness, he rarely allowed himself to succumb to fear. But when he heard the friar in the square in Oxford that day, describing the horrors of the plague, the hardness weakened, the barrier began to crack, and he felt a constricting of the muscles in his neck, a shortness of breath, a rapid thundering of the beating place in his breast. Try as he might, he could not fend off the rising anxiety planted in his bosom by the words of the friar.

He found his fingers running inadvertently to his underarms, to his groin area, touching, feeling, inspecting for the dreaded buboes. Yet was it not entirely fair to describe Willard’s fears in this selfish fashion. More than for himself, he feared for his mother, and for Beatrix. With a grimness born of desperation and something deeper that eluded Willard’s understanding, he was determined to find a way to protect his family from the dreaded pestilence. Whatever the cost, he was determined.

“Whoa!” he called to Rosemary and Sage. Amidst the creaking of cartwheels and the blowing of the oxen, he halted at the quarry in Headington. A pond had formed where he had for over a year now been quarrying rough stone. Though he didn’t entirely believe all the friar had said, the man’s words had assisted in forming an idea in his mind. Willard sat at the base of a willow tree. Leaning against the rough bark of its trunk, he unlaced his shoes and rolled up the legs of his trousers. The willow stood at the south end of the pond, and in the shade of its drooping branches, green slime had formed on the surface of the water. Gingerly, Willard stepped into the cool water. A shudder ran through his frame. He didn’t like placing his feet in water covered with slime. He could not see what lurked beneath the surface. Wading in up to his mid thighs, he stopped and waited. What would it feel like? He wondered. And how long would it take?

After a long day of walking and working, the cool water at first felt refreshing on his feet and toes. After a half an hour his feet began to feel numb—but that was all he had felt. When he could stand it no longer, he waded back to the mud at the edge of the pond. As he began rolling his trousers over his damp legs, he halted. In the cup formed by the bending place in back of his left knee was the black slimy body of a leech. Lowering his trousers carefully over the sucking creature, he smiled with satisfaction. He had gone fishing for leeches, his own blood as bait. It had worked. Who needed silver to buy the friar’s leeches from Transylvania? The last thing he wanted was to put silver coins back in the hands of a friar.

Careful not to disturb the blood-letting creature, Willard unharnessed and fed the oxen, bedding them down for the night in Squire Reginald’s barn. As he walked through the hovels that stood off from the manor house, he was not met by the usual bustle of his neighbors. There were dogs, and chickens, and goats, and Widow Hannah’s large cat rubbed against his leg, her gray striped tail twitching for attention. But there were no children at play, no men carrying fuel for their cooking fire, no housewives tossing seed to their chickens. He saw no one. Puzzled, he entered the low doorway of his family’s bower.

“Have you heard?” cried his mother, gripping his shoulders.

Willard eyed her cautiously. How much had she heard? He looked about the bower. There was no sign of Beatrix. He had hoped to keep word of the pestilence from his family. There was no sense in raising their anxiety. The more knowledge, the more grief; the less they knew the better. But from his mother’s wide eyes and the creases in her brow, and the trembling of her hands, he feared she knew all.

“Does Beatrix know?” he asked.

“She’ll have heard,” said his mother. “The whole manor’s heard. What shall we do?” she moaned. “We must pray,” she added, answering her own question.

Willard scowled. Friars prayed. And no doubt the folks in Southampton and Bristol had done more than their share of praying. Little good it had done them. He’d leave praying to others. He had his own plans.

“Word is that it’s the stars,” she went on, stirring the pottage simmering over the coals. “The pestilence is brung on by the conjunctification of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars.”

“And who was it that told you so?” asked Willard, looking hard at his mother.

“The gray friar passing through this morning,” she said, wiping her hands over her apron. “He said it’s so.”

“Did you give him silver?” said Willard.

She spun around, busying herself with the pot.

“Did you, then?” he pressed her.

“He promised us ever so many years off purgatory, did he,” she said, the water rising in her eyes. “And what good’ll silver do us when the plague overtakes us?”

“What good’ll our silver do friars and all their money-grubbing kind when plague o’er takes them? Priests and the like die of plague as well, they do. The very scoundrels that tell us to set our hearts on the life to come, seem most of all men to have set theirs on this one. I’m no scholar. I just cart stone to Oxford. But I know this much: friars who terrify us with news of plague and death and then fleece us of our little silver for their paper forgiveness, men who do such things are nothing but low-down cheats. I put no stock in the likes of them friars.”

He paused for breath. It was more words than Willard was used to putting together at one time. His mother buried her face in her apron and collapsed onto a stool.

Willard watched a spark from the coals meander upward and out the hole in the roof. Why had he gone and upset her? He dropped to one knee beside her stool and drew his mother to himself;[J3] , her shoulders rose and fell with her sobs.

“Trust me, Mother,” he said, patting her shoulder. “I have a plan. You need not fear. I’ll save us from plague. You’ll see. You’ll see.”

“How, then, will you do it, Brother?”

Willard looked up and stood to his feet. Without his hearing her, Beatrix had entered the bower. Her cheeks were the color of the wild roses that bloom in the hedgerows, and she cradled a sheaf of oxeye daisies in her arm.

“How then will you go about saving us?” she asked again, her eyes dancing.

It was precisely the question he had begun asking himself. Whether from the heat near the coals, or from having its fill of Willard’s blood, the leech that had attached itself to his leg let go its grip. Willard felt its release like the pricking of a Hawthorne on his flesh. Pulling up his trousers, he took the oily black creature in his hands and held it for his sister and mother to see. “With this,” he said simply.

Douglas Bond is author of twenty-eight books, including The Resistance set in enemy occupied Normandy, and two-time Grace Award book finalist; he directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, is an award-winning teacher, podcaster, speaker at conferences, and leader of Church history tours in Europe. Visit his website for special buy-3-get-1-free book deals and study guides during the virus lock down at

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