Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Guest Post by Steve Stred

Steve Stred

The water lapped slowly against the concrete shore, creating a hypnotic rhythm.

The rats scurried and scampered around the dark crevices of the cement walls, keeping their distance. They waited, knowing they would get a chance to scavenge. The rain helped keep them at bay, but only for so long. 

The rain. 

It had been raining for a few years now, right about the time everything went sideways. It never stopped, leaving little puddles in the cobblestones.

“Hey, you, down below,” a constable yelled, “get those bodies on those boats. We have another shipment coming, we can’t have this many piles at once.”

“Aye,” I called back up. We could work as fast as we wanted, it wasn’t going to make a difference. The people kept dying, the bodies kept stacking up in piles, higher and higher, and there was no end in sight. I knew soon enough, my body would be included in the pile, ready to be put on a little wood boat, lit on fire and pushed off into the water.

When I started as a body tosser, I was the newest of the five. Now, I was the last of the originals, with the four others having started after me. I personally had tossed the originals onto the boats, lit them on fire. I couldn’t bring myself to push it out into the water as it burned though, I let the new recruits do that.

The Black Death had swept through the city, decimating the population. Some said it began with the rats. The number of rats had increased since the Black Death came swooping down. Others, though, said there were more rats, because of the increase in bodies.

My Uncle believed that this plague arrived with the French, angry at our country, so they in turn, poisoned our water. He died before he could substantiate his thoughts, bleeding from every hole in his body.

My Father believed that the Black Death was a sign from Jesus that we had sinned, and no matter how much repentance we had, it wasn’t good enough. Jesus must have especially believed my Father had sinned, for the manner in which he died. The rats made quick work of him.

I myself, had no idea why or where it came from. All I knew was that my Wife came home one day, boils all over her body. I kept her in our room, segregated from the children and myself, but it didn’t matter. She liquefied in a matter of days, screaming non-stop, the agony of her death apparent. My children cried and cried, which at first, I mistook for sorrow, but I soon realized they too had developed boils, and the pain caused them to scream out. I was able to use some flat metal that I found in the alley, to scrape all three of their bodies into one body bag, and lugged it down to the river side.

“You looking for a job, Johnny?” The large, hairy man asked.

 “You pay?”

“I can. I can give you 1 quid a week, for as long as you live. Then after, I can give that to your family for 1 more week as a thank you.”

“I ain’t got no family. But I could use a job.”

So I started that day, becoming the fifth tosser. It was not fun work, it smelled awful, and many people were hysterical when they dropped their loved ones off in a bag. We knew this job was essential though. If we didn’t do it, the creeping death would never leave.

Would they find a cure?

How was I to know? I wasn’t educated, or kept in the loop with the King and the Queen. I was a body tosser, formerly a chimney sweep, all alone, waiting for my fate.

We were able to stack the bodies 10 high, with two rows on the boats, before they would become too top heavy, to unstable, tipping over. We didn’t want to have to wade out and retrieve the bags, so we made sure the boats wouldn’t topple. Once it was lit on fire, we would give it a good hard kick, watching as it set out, the current taking it down the river, burning bright orange before disappearing around the bend.

“Hey Johnny, why don’t you have no gloves on?” Curtis asked, staring at my pale white hands.

“No point. Death is coming for all of us. I’ve seen my fair share. Every day that I wake up and the sun isn’t shining, is one day closer to the end for me. It’s just a matter of time.”

“Wow, way to give me a good pep talk,” he replied, throwing a body bag at me, as the rest of the boys broke out in laughter.

“I do what I can,” I replied, feeling a grin spread across my dirt caked face, revealing my few remaining teeth.

We stacked the bodies, lit the oil, and kicked the boats off. We did this on repeat for hours, growing tired.

Finally the toll of the church bells rang out in the distance, signalling it was time for lunch.

I walked slowly home, along the old cobbled streets, careful to avoid coming into contact with the prostitutes, priests and the corpses.

My front door had been kicked in, once again, and when I entered our small kitchen, the table had been flipped over. Hungry homeless folk, seeing a dark place, hoping to find some scraps. This was the 10th time this month my door had been kicked in.

I went to the wall, by the window, and pried off a piece of board. Fishing out the two potatoes I had hidden inside, I pushed the board back in, then sat down at the flipped over table and ate them like I would an apple.

How I missed fruit.

When the bells tolled again, I closed the door, and walked slowly back to work, searching the sky for any sign of the sun, but finding only dark clouds and rain drops. So I set my eyes to the alley ahead.

The rats scuttled away as I returned, the first one to make it back after lunch, many of them taking chunks of flesh with them. Some were already in the throes of dying, blood trails following them wherever they went, leaking from some orifice.

I went to kick a larger rat out of the way, and missed. My foot slipped on the wet cobble stone and I fell hard to the ground. I cursed the rat, and then felt a sharp pain in my leg. Looking down, I saw that a rat had come over, biting my leg. I hurriedly thrashed it off, as it squealed and scurried away.

“Bloody hell,” I yelled out, as the other men returned from eating.

“You alright Johnny? You look whiter than normal.”

“A rat just bit me,” I said, still shocked.

The four just stared at me, as though they had spotted a ghost.

“Never mind, get to work. It looks like we had about 4 more dozen bags dropped off while we were gone.”

For the rest of the day, the other men kept their distance from me. A number of times I would look over and catch one of them simply standing and staring at me.

As nightfall approached, we said our goodbyes. Curtis hung around a bit longer, waiting until the other lads had left.

“Johnny, it’s no good to have a rat bite you. I will come by first thing tomorrow, see what’s what, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Thanks, come by, you will be surprised when you find me up and ready for work.”

“Sure will. Alright, have a decent night. Get that wound sterilized.”

I crept home, feeling my leg ache, but attributing that to an animal biting me or the hard fall on the ground, and nothing more.

When I made it home, glad to see my door still closed, I flipped the table over, and lit the lamp.

I pulled my pant leg up, and surveyed the damage. I was not happy to see what was there. My skin was dark and black around the wound. A thick green fluid began to seep out of it when I touched it.

I went to the stove and started a small fire in it. I placed a kettle of water on the burner and waited to hear it whistle.

When the whistle went off, I grabbed the kettle, brought it over to the table and set it down. I pulled the pant leg back up, exposing the wound, then took a deep breath. I then grabbed the kettle and quickly placed the bottom of it on my skin, burning the wound, searing the area. I screamed loudly, but kept the burning hot metal on my leg, knowing I had to stop it from spreading.

Finally I couldn’t take it anymore and I ripped the kettle away, and limped to the bedroom. Flopping into the bed, my body had experienced too much, and I passed out from the pain.

I came to the next morning, with Curtis kicking my side.

“Johnny? Johnny? You dead?”

“Uhhhhhhhh,” I replied, letting him know I wasn’t, yet.

I slowly sat up, and when my eyes came into focus, what I saw wasn’t good. Curtis was pale and his nose was leaking, thick black blood.

“Curtis, oh geez,” I said as I stood up. My leg burned with pain immediately and I almost dropped to the ground in horror.

“Johnny, your leg? What did you do?”

“Stopped the spread.”

“You failed. You are in the same boat as me, it looks like.”

I touched my nose, and when I pulled my hand back, saw my fingers were covered with the same color of blood as my friend. I touched my ears, and sure enough, they had blood coming from them as well.

I didn’t want to look in my pants, but now standing up, I could feel my innards sloshing towards the ground.

“Come on, let’s go, we got bodies to toss.”

Curtis and I slowly made our way to the river side, not saying a word. Everything hurt.

I wished the sun would come out, but knew I would never see it again.

It took us twice as long to get to the boats, and when we got there, the other three clearly did not like what arrived.

“You two look like death. Sorry to see that boys. It’s been a privilege knowing you and working with you.”

Curtis just nodded his head. I tried but found I couldn’t, as I was growing dizzy.

I went over and sat down, hard, against the cement wall. The rats ran away in a tizzy, but soon started to creep back in, curious about what was slumped in their place now.

“Boys,” I started, before a coughing spell took over. I hacked and choked and thick chunks of black tissue spewed from my mouth. Wiping my face with my arm, I saw that a thick black fluid coated my skin as well.

“Boys, this isn’t good, not good at all. I need one of you to grab me a bag, and when the time comes, promise me you will toss me in it good, and not let me be taken by the rats, please and thanks.”

“Aye, no worries Johnny.”

Curtis was also coughing and he appeared dizzy. He stumbled, lost his footing and fell headfirst into the river. The boys all hollered, jumping in after him, trying to save a man who was already dead.

I closed my eyes, knowing it was over. I heard the rats and felt some bites, but it was too late. I was too far gone. I had been a good husband and father.

But now I was just another body to be tossed. 


Authors after Note

TOSSERS was inspired by two things really; the plague and more specifically, what did most people do during the plague. Now, of course, I could google that, or find an encyclopedia and read about it, but back when it was happening, they had neither handy, so I wanted to write it with the idea of what someone would do, if they lost their family and knew they would die at some point.
It was also inspired by the song The Riverbank by the UK punk band The Gallows. The song begins with water lapping against the river bank and it just really inspired the feeling of the story.
I had my good friend Cam, from Hastings in the UK help with some little details and tidbits (ie cobbled sidewalks, tolling church bells etc) and I can’t thank him enough for his input, even if he is a bus wanker! 

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