It began shortly after the sixth one died. One morning I woke up and my mouth felt strange. I touched my tongue to the inside of my cheeks and felt tiny bumps. My head, when I moved it, felt wooden and heavy. I had been feeling out of sorts for days, but hadn't said anything.
I was still in bed when my mother came to check why I hadn't come down to breakfast. She took one look at my face and her eyes widened in horror. Her hand came up to cover her nose and mouth. She whirled out of the chamber.
Soon I heard my father’s footsteps on the stairs and the door opened a crack. He looked briefly in and promptly closed it again. I heard muffled talking outside my door.
“What is it?!” I croaked, beginning to get annoyed now, “Why can't you come in and talk to me?”
There was a silence and then my father said from behind the door, “Mercy we think you have the pox, you have the rash on your face. I don't know how you caught it but I pray to God it's not from me”.
There was more mumbled whispering. Then my mother, “I'm going to run and get the doctor, my dear girl, please just stay there and we'll see what he says.”
I wasn't going anywhere. My back felt like hot needles were being poked into it and my legs were as heavy as if tree trunks had been laid across them. I lifted the bedclothes to have a look and got a shock at the thick red rash spread across the top of my stomach.
By the time the doctor arrived I also had a splitting headache. He came in with kerchief tied around his face. He looked briefly into my eyes, at my face and gingerly unlaced the top of my nightgown to look at my neck. When he spoke it was with a slightly raised voice to the closed door and not to me.
“It's the pox all right, she's showing all the symptoms. We'll need to keep her isolated and start the hot treatment”.
I heard my mother whimper in fear. I felt I should reassure her, for at that time, strangely enough, I had no great fear of my affliction. Certainly I didn't feel like I would die, at that time it was just greatly uncomfortable and it was odd to be avoided by my family. I didn't see my sister once during that time. I could hear her below me moving about in the kitchen but she was forbidden to enter my chamber.
The doctor turned my chamber into a boiling, airless space to sweat the pox out of my body. Blankets were nailed over the windows, which were locked up tight. As I drifted in and out of sleep, I did wonder why I hadn't been moved to the Pest House, but I couldn't keep the thought in my brain long enough to work it out.
My mother made me broth, which was delivered in a complicated manner because she was so afraid of catching my illness. She would stand outside my chamber, then the door was inched open and a tray with a bowl was pushed forward into the chamber with a broom handle.
When it had reached the bed she would take a deep breath, cover her face with a cloth and run in scooping up the tray and placing it on the bed. Then she would run out as fast as she'd run in.
As the pox took hold I vaguely remembered it was my father, a thick white kerchief fashioned around his face, who lifted my head gently and spooned the warm broth down my aching throat. He who put vinegar cloths under my nose and a bag of camphor around my neck in an effort to rid my body of the disease.
In my weakened state, I thought he seemed an angel come to deliver me from hell. It was also he who changed my bed linen when it was soiled, rolling me gently on my side, despite the doctor giving strict orders that my sheets were highly infected and mustn't be touched.
But a pounding headache, sore throat and rash were the least effects of the illness. After a few days I glanced down at my hands and saw white pustules all over them. The dreaded blisters soon covered my face, hands and feet and spread all over my body. Filled with a watery fluid which then turned yellow, they spared no inch of me.
Coupled with the horror of turning into a blistered monster, I felt sorely wretched, like someone had lain me across one of my father’s anvils and pierced me all over with a red hot poker. Nights were the worst, when I heard Death’s ragged breathing outside my door and voices whispered from the dark corners of my chamber to let him in. It was then that I was truly afraid and weakly called out for my father.
But it appeared that Death had found me an unwilling companion and after a nightmarish week or so, the pustules turned into scabs and started falling off. I felt better and could sit up and feed myself. Then I knew that I would live and the doctor, who checked me over when the infection had truly passed, said I was lucky I hadn’t bled within or been left blind.
I didn’t feel lucky, though, when I saw the angry scars and crude pits it had left on my face and body. I realised that I had missed my chance when Death had come calling.