The Ships Are Coming
Naples, February 16, 1899
My dearest Millie,
I fear this is the last time I shall ever write to you. Doctors crowd around my bed like so many crows in their hideous beaked masks. I tell them, Go! and they peck at me, and peck. I barely have strength left to hold a pen, Millie, but I must tell you what has happened. I must warn you of the ships.
We traveled from Pompeii to Naples so that Papa might visit the ancient treasures in the Museo. We ought then to have returned straight to Sorrento, but “Surely you will not leave before the Carnival?” was all our English acquaintances could exclaim. Riotous! Pagan! they called it. Why Mama did not insist we go back to Sorrento there and then I do not know.
We visited the Duomo on Sunday, but scarcely had I stepped outside when a beggar-woman accosted me. She gripped my arm and mumbled at me with her toothless mouth, eyes black as pitch, fixing me so I couldn’t look away. Papa rescued me from her, but I swore to him I would not leave our lodging again.
There had been news also–I near fainted to hear it–of a plague ship at Catania.
Papa tried to calm me with his “Come now, Grace, we are not in Catania.” And all must perform quarantine who arrive at the port of Naples.
“The ships are coming,” I said to him. I don’t know how I knew that, Millie, but I was sure of it.
Papa had rented rooms with a balcony from which we might view the Carnival procession. And all might have been well but for little Thomas’s obsession with R.F. and Laurie, who took all the trophies at Wimbledon last year, as I know you remember. We were seated, high above the gathering crowd, but my brother moped and wouldn’t settle, swiping his racquet at my mother’s skirts. Since the procession wasn’t yet at our street, and perhaps would not arrive for a half hour, so the servant said, I agreed to watch Thomas in the courtyard while he bounced the ball. “Up and down,” I told him, for fear he might shatter a window. “Up and down only.” Like the stripes on his blazer.
Down in the courtyard, Thomas bounced, bounced, bounced his ball, closer and closer to the outer door.
“Thomas!” I remember shouting, for I feared it might open suddenly, which is of course what happened. Out into the dazzling rectangle of light went the ball, and Thomas after it. Millie, I didn’t think, but flung aside my book and followed him through the mass of people, out into the street.
Our servant had been wrong about the timing of the procession, for the crowd roared suddenly, and when I turned, a massive ship seemed to float towards me, black-prowed and fearfully tall. Four huge horses pulled it, plumed as if en route to a funeral. I screamed and heard other screams echo around me; I know not whether of fear, ridicule or joy. I know only that I have never felt such terror. I do not recall clearly what happened next. Hands reached for me, but not to pull me aside. Rather, I was lifted up into the ship.
Dark shapes surrounded me then, a raucous flock in long beaked masks, bone-white with round eyes, fierce and staring. I was reminded of the beggar woman, for all were looking at me, tilting their heads this way and that, gesticulating, jabbering. Nonsense words, I think, though I have but little Italian.
“Who are you?” I cried. And “Let me go!” for they were spinning me about till I felt dizzy and sick. “Stop!” I remember screaming, but the black-robed bird-men merely screeched in reply. One of them pulled me towards him and spoke in English, strongly accented: “You want to know who we are? We are doctors, though no one can be saved.” And he pulled aside his mask.
I saw it clearly, Millie. I saw it. The swelling on his neck, hard like an egg. And blood in a carmine trickle from one nostril.
I must have fainted, for I woke in my bed to whispering voices, a smell of burning herbs. Mama beside me. I think it was she.
But the room shifts like I’m back on that strange ship. The doctors circle me with their white masks, cackling, hooting. “You too, you too!”
Millie, I know the ships are coming. Soon they’ll berth in Liverpool and Glasgow and London. The doctors have told me. There’s one beside me now with a rat perched on his shoulder, cleaning its bristled whiskers so fastidiously.
The ships are coming, Millie. May the Lord help us all.
Clare Woods was born in Britain but has lived and worked in North Carolina for two decades. She is an Associate Professor in Classical Studies at Duke University where she specializes in ancient and medieval Latin language and literature as well as manuscript studies. Current projects include a new study into the Renaissance reception of the Roman author Pliny the Elder, and a digital project entitled Carolingian Intellectual Networks. Clare also writes fiction. She has a novel in progress, and enjoys the challenge of writing very short stories, too.
A Song for Clare