The Girl, the Cat and the Great Plague

The Plague

This is the second assignment for the MOOC, “Whitman’s Civil War: Writing and Imaging Loss, Death, and Disaster“, through the University of Iowa.

This assignment requires:

Think of a place that at first may not seem to be related to a contemporary conflict or a traumatic event from the past, but which might be used to reveal something important about that conflict. Perhaps if you describe that conflict or traumatic event from the viewpoint of that place, you will find that new thoughts about the conflict or event come to you. Perhaps if you compare this place to the site of the conflict or event, you will find new ways to describe what the conflict or event means to you and what you think it should mean to the world. Through writing and/or image, compose your own picture or description of this conflict or trauma, constructing the details from the unexpected place you have chosen

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The Girl, the Cat and the Great Plague

 

She sips her mint tea. It soothes her swollen tonsils. Her cat sits at the foot of her bed. They share the warmth of the fire the girl’s mother has lit in her room. The cat appears to have no ill-effects from the vaccinations carried out by the vet a few days earlier. It was expensive, but the cat is much-loved, and is a great companion to the girl. She is an only child. Her parents do not skimp on healthcare for their daughter or her cat.

Three hundred and fifty years earlier, the keeping of cats in London was illegal. Men were employed to kill cats and dogs as a way, it was thought, to stop the spread of the Great Plague. In fact, it had the reverse effect: rats were the main carriers of the fleas infected with the Yersinia pestis bacterium. Cats in particular would have kept the rat population down, and slowed the spread of the plague. Eventually it was realised that those who (illegally) kept cats tended to avoid the plague, and the ban was lifted; too late for tens of thousands of plague victims.

Had the tonsillitis afflicted girl lived in London in 1665, she would have likely been such a victim. The leeches, the pomander, the potions, the prayers of her desperate mother would have had no effect. There would have been no pet cat to kill off the local, flea infested rats. Instead of mildly painful tonsils, the lymph nodes in her neck and under her arms would have swollen into painful buboes. She would have been racked with fever, afflicted with frequent vomiting, pounding headaches and gangrene; barely able to swallow. Her face would have blown up in bulbous black swellings. A quack doctor would have lanced them or sliced them with a razor. She would have gone mad with pain, died in agony. The single, cold, cramped room she shared with several siblings in a rat-infested building would have seen a feeding frenzy by the vicious biting fleas. The plague would have ravaged her whole family.

The fortunate modern-day girl sips her mint tea, gazes for a while out of the fly-screened window of her warm, comfortable bedroom, finishes her history homework with the help of her iPad and Wikipedia. She looks forward to her afternoon ice cream treat. The cat purrs contentedly at the foot of her bed. The girl unwraps a gift she has been saving for it: a black flea collar with small golden bell.

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2016

 

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12 thoughts on “The Girl, the Cat and the Great Plague

  1. I enjoyed this piece, Mike.This is the first writing Ive read from you that is not a poem. It is so beautifully written. It carried me back to that horrible time that I was startled when we came back to the present with iPad and wiki. Well done.

    • thanks Karen. When I write prose, I tend to write only short prose pieces (I have a very short attention span ;-), which might sometimes be described as “prose poetry”. Where prose ends and poetry starts is debatable. i certainly wrote it without trying to make it particularly poetic. There’s a bit of assonance / alliteration (which is which i keep forgetting). It was a good assignment, in needing a connection between 2 disconnected events / places /times, so i suppose that forces some poetic qualities.

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