The Yellow SheetsA Story by Michael Carr
A Masterpiece (based on the breakout of yellow fever in the 1800s in New York City)
Mud rises up around the heel of my boot with every step, soaking to the frayed ties before sinking back into the prints left behind. The rain has gone yet the mud remains. Beneath the mud there comes the heads of the sheets.
I won’t take this path again.
When I get home it’s gotten worse. Specks of dried blood cover the edges of her nostrils, rubbed raw from the constant presence of the handkerchiefs that lay balled up and crimson stained around her. Shadows under the eyes, so dark. I sit beside her and ask her how she’s doing. She offers me a weak laugh as though I’ve said something funny.
I take her hand in mine and rub it. The ring on her finger shines dull. I remark on the condition, offer to shine it for her. She smiles. She doesn’t want it to be gone, says it reminds her of me, especially when I’m at the docks. I could take some time off, the boys would understand, but she shakes her head and tells me no, that I need to keep busy. I worry too much when I’m not distracted. I need to keep busy, keep distracted.
I give her the medicine the doctor’s left us. Almost empty. On ration now. I tell her I’ll find some more. I promise her. She rubs my cheek and smiles again. It won’t matter, she tells me, the medicine never works. It makes me feel better though, knowing I can give her something, anything, even if it’s nothing.
We play a game of bridge together. The coughing starts again, soon she can’t hold the cards. They fall from her pale fingers. I tell her it’s okay, she should rest. She tells me she’s tired of resting. She wants to cook for me. I tell her no, I’ll cook something. But I’m a horrible cook, she tells me. I ask her that she stop reminding me. Maybe she would if she didn’t need to eat.
Outside the bells begin to ring. There’s pounding from the floor above. The bells grow louder. I rise from the bed and make my way to the window. Down the block there comes the cart. They hold the yellow sheets. Not as many people answer their doors as yesterday, but there’s still a few. Mrs. Carlyle can’t carry her husband. The men moving the cart assist her.
The men on the docks whisper around me. They wonder if I have it. There’s at least one in every family that has it, but none of their wives have it. They worry I’ll pass it on. I let them talk. The boxes are heavier today. Blankets, medical supplies, more than we’ve ever unloaded in a single day
It’s getting worse, I know it. There’s no Irish arriving. No more Polish. No more English. The ships are carrying fewer to our land every day. We unload cargo at the base of the statue now. Every time I turn around I read the words upon the plaque. Bring me your tired, your sick, but no one wants to come. There’s smoke in the distance from where the bodies burn.
The smell fills the street. It’s foul. The mayor says the methods had to change. They’re still burying the sheets that hold the dead, beneath the roads, on the sides of the streets. But the roads are getting smaller. The fires are growing bigger. I think they’re running out of room.
The doctor doesn’t enter our home anymore; he says it’s too much of a risk. He drops his bottles off on our doorstep and moves on his way. There are others who need him more, he says. I don’t tell her that I hit him.
Her skin is yellow. There’s a long splotch across our bedspread now. She can’t help herself. She cries whenever a new stain comes. I tell her it’s okay, it’s not her fault. I clean her legs. I wash what I can. There’s not enough sheets to keep up. I hold her hand for hours and we talk. We talk about what we’ll do when it’s over, all the ferry rides we’ll take, how we’ll see the city grow. I talk more. She listens.
From across the street Mrs. Carlyle exits her home carrying her violin. She begins to play like she did for the burrows before the fever hit. It’s not a sad song. It’s quite beautiful, quite hopeful. I wish I knew the lady better.
I turn to my wife and offer a smile. I nod my head to the tempo and do a little swanlike dance as best I can. She laughs. Her skin stretches tight along her cheeks. Her shoulders shake. She sneezes suddenly and her hand fills with blood. She’s laughing still, as the blood runs down her nose. I try to wipe the blood away with the handkerchief but she knocks my hand away. It’s so bizarre, her laugh, so strong, it reminds me of before.
She calls my name at night. I lift myself from the thin blanket that covers the floorboards at the foot of our bed. She’s shaking worse. I can’t hold her. Her nightgown stains the color of the sheets. A red pool forms at the base of the neckline. I try and grab her hand. One of her nails comes away in my grasp. I want to scream but I hold it down for her.
I give her the last of the medicine. Her dry lips suck at the rusted metal. The shaking stops. She doesn’t speak, but the shaking’s stopped.
The fires are strong. The smell is in the air. The bells are ringing. The cart is here.
They ask me if I need help moving her. I tell them I want to carry her myself. They say that it’ll be okay, that at least I’m not sick. I don’t respond. When I ask them where they’re taking her, they tell me they’ll find a place among the graves, that she won’t be burned.
I head towards the docks. Along the way I see the sheets again. They cover the road. A field of them, so bright. I wonder where she is. Am I standing on her now?
© 2011 Michael Carr
AboutMy name is Michael Carr. I'm 20 years old now, god help me, attending UTD on a full ride scholarship in the Biology pre-Med program. IF YOU ARE READING THROUGH MY WORK FOR THE FIRST TIME, PLEASE HE.. more..
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