Author's Note: Yes, this is a gruesome story, but I wrote it in the intriguing premise of the Black Death as an entity. However, I'm still not sure what to make of this piece. Written in 2003.
The church had once held congregations of peasants, their eyes upturned to the heavens, to the warm light that streamed from the narrow windows, pleading to God for a better harvest, a child, or salvation from the burning pits of Hell. It now stood empty and cold, where the cruel wind ripped at the high arches and moaned across the filthy straw-covered floor. The church no longer looked like a house of God, but had grown to a personal Hell for Arienna's mind. Her belly ached, as did her heart, as the 16-year-old leaned her head against a thick pillar. Defeat and utter exhaustion filled her frame. She could not let tears roll down her cheeks. She shouldn't be shedding tears as a proper Christian in mourning. To let the tears fall from her eyes would unleash the emotions she tried so hard to push back to the farthest recesses of her mind. Only the dull pain of physical hurt reminded her she was still alive.
At least the stink of Black Death did not penetrate the high and sacred walls, a small solace to the child. Arienna had been around the plague for far too long. It innocuously started as a reddening of her husband's skin on his arms. Soon it spread across his chest and around his neck. He fell into deep fever and could no longer work the horses. He wasn't the only one. Several forgotten ploughshares lay rusting in the fields of wheat and cabbages. Arienna's husband had soon passed it to his father and to his mother. By the end of the month, all three had died, along with fifty-six other villagers of the small town of Darving. Only Arienna, six children, an old and blind man, and the village herbalist lasted through the autumn. The stink rose to high heaven, sending the crows in swarms over the decaying bodies. The sun boiled the bodies, and the well-kept houses and tended gardens ran wild, as did the pig herds and draft horses. Soon, those who had remained seemed to vanish.
It had been a cool autumn morning, and Arienna lay in her old bed of straw, staring out the open door over the fields as the sun rose. The warm rays of light didn't seem to touch her, as she blankly stared ahead. The dried black adorned the doorway in grisly memory.
Four days it had been since. She remembered how her mother, although in high fever, had bustled around the house preparing for her grandchild. She didn't live through the night. The mother did not hear the screams of pain and then of utter anguish from her own blood, as Arienna stumbled out of her bed, hallucinating about a black horse following her, rearing up at her. The pain within her womb, that had held life for eight long months, grew unbearable. The horse's hooves descended upon her. The young woman collapsed inside the front doorframe. Her body purged.
Arienna lay still within her bed, the same she had shared warmth in with her husband during the long winter nights. It soon grew cool, and dark settled over the distant hills like a sudden tempest. The trees roiled in the quick wind, and her heart started to fill with dread. Arienna welcomed this emotion, for it meant she still were human, still possessed a soul.
The wind chilled her, but another sound chilled her heart, the slow rhythmic beating of hooves upon the dirt path. The sound was as steady as the dripping of blood. Her ears picked up the sounds of a stamp of a hoof and the snort of a massive warhorse, yet there was no sound as the rider dismounted. Who could it be? Arienna was too exhausted to care much. She closed her eyes, so tired, so full of grief. When she opened them, Death stood before her.
Disconnectedly, in the back of her mind, she had imagined him enshrouded in black with wings like a bat's. What she saw before her brought tears to her eyes, which tears, she did not know. He stood tall, wearing little, his skin black as coal, his long white hair bound in knots down his writhing back. His eyes pulled at her very soul, it was painful, a deep pain, even deeper than that of failed childbirth. She had not the energy to raise herself, almost content to lose herself in Death's eyes, but something within her snapped. The voice in her head shrieked in warning.
The pony's movements under her jarred her pelvis deeply, as shocks of pain ran up and down her spine, galloping as fast as the pony could take her. She pressed herself to her pony's neck, praying to Mary. May I live. She kicked the pony's sides brutally, her heart quickening. Death had not attempted to follow her. The wind whistled comfortingly through the untended wheat growing in the fields as Arienna galloped through the yellow grain. Her mind seemed more alive than it had in days, her eyes already fixed upon her sanctuary over the crest of the next gently sloping hill.
The church stood tall and ominous around the small town. The sinister building of God was respite and last sanctuary for Arienna. She had to outrun Death, she had to live. As the pony's shuddering frame galloped up through the town, nothing stirred. There was no sound of laughter among the alleys or the men laughing at the well where the women stood. The streets were empty, with no sign of life anywhere, the winds moaning among the boughs of the dead and dying trees in the main courtyard. This town, too, had been claimed by Death. He knew of this place already. Arienna's heart sank as the Church came into view. Death upon his proud, yet sickly-looking horse, stood in front of the Church steps. Silence seemed to stop the world's moving as he watched Arienna's frantic mind turn. Death's horse scuffed the ground with its fore hoof, a retching, disconsolate sound. Arienna suppressed a shudder and turned her pony and headed straight for the front steps of the church, praying silently to her patron saint. Spare me, spare me . . . Arienna quickly dismounted and rushed up the church steps and hammered the double doors with her fists, screaming for someone to open them. She turned, wide-eyed and Death slowly dismounted from his midnight horse, pulling out a silver scythe from behind him.
Your time has come, Arienna of Darving. I have come to claim you. His voice seemed almost ancient; beautiful to listen to. Death's own expression was one of twisted satisfaction and kindness. He advanced towards the stairs, toward Arienna.
Arienna slammed her shoulder into the door, the andrenaline lending her strength. The flimsy inside lock splintered. She nearly fell in and pushed with all her might to shut both doors before Death's impending steps towards her.
Now Arienna sat within the same Church walls, her hair matted, her face filthy from where tears should have fallen. She had been quiet in her contemplation. Death could not enter here, for it was the house of God. She had decided to shed her own clothing. Her skirts were the same color black as had the doorframe been. It had begun to rain outside, raindrops sliding through the crevices of the old wooden ceiling, forming pools of calm beneath the steps up to the altar. The young woman bathed in the pools, relishing the cold and the refreshing scent of water. She drank deeply from the pools, wondering if this water was holy too. Maybe she would stay here until everything was right again.
An all too familiar cry shook her from her reveries. The cry of a small infant stabbed her heart. She turned from the pools, pulling down the white altar cloth to cover herself. The sound had come from the double doors. Arienna cautiously crept toward the door, and opened it. Sunlight from the late afternoon awash in light rain, swept into the darkened church. Outside, on the front steps, laid a child less than a day old wrapped within black cloth. It let up another howl as Arienna watched the child. The pangs in her were not from hunger or from the childbirth, but of what was missing, something that should have been there, her child. Every fiber of her being screamed at her to take the child into her arms and hold it to her breast, for the world would fall away and everything would be right again. Yet, Death waited patiently at the bottom of the church steps, watching Arienna's reaction.
Arienna, your child has waited long for your caress. Take your babe into your arms, for it belongs there. His voice seemed to chant, to drive Arienna's mind to his bidding.
Arienna was torn. That was her child, living, breathing, crying, in want of a mother and of a caress. She was only two steps away, two aching steps away. Arienna shook, and her knees grew weak. My child, my child. For the first time in too long, tears trickled down her cheeks. Shudders of pain only a mother could feel, shook her, as she sank to her knees, her arms aching to reach out and hold the child. A soothing voice told her to take a step back, to turn away from the temptation, to embrace the Church once again. Arienna obeyed, still crying.
Inside of the church door, Arienna lost control, falling to the cold stone floor, lying there in disconsolate tears. She heard the child's scream, and then silence. She dreaded the paths her imagination took her upon, what Death had done to her child. The crooning voice in her head spoke to her soothing words, for living, of everything turning out all right, of Heaven's healing light, yet the voice could not console the mother's tears.
Soon, the pain and suffering bred rage within Arienna's mind. The soothing voice grew faint, as Arienna's mind churned. Her mind seemed to think in circles and unbroken lines, tracing and retracing the same thoughts and reaching the same pained conclusions. Rage and another, harsher, voice filled her, demanded she take action, yet her physical body was too weak. Arienna could barely rise, much less escape Death. The young woman drifted in and out of consciousness for a day and a night, so tired, so hurt, and so unfulfilled.
When she awoke, the Church was afire.
Arienna heard the crossbeams of the wooden ceiling groaning under the pressure, ad saw the yellow tongues of flame licking at the wooden altar, for the church was a poor one. It soon grew hard to breathe and hard to see. Arienna stumbled towards the double doors and pushed them open with her last effort.
Again, Death stood there upon the steps, not daring to come closer, his eyes showing the patience of an immortal. Arienna, have you chosen to leave with me? I promise it will not cause further pain. His voice was to soothe and reassure the old child.
Arienna wearily shook her head, refusing to admit defeat. She turned and staggered towards the flames. She would rather die facing the flames than go with the thing that took her child. She dropped the altar cloth as her steps faltered, and finally sinking in utter defeat against a pillar. Tears filled her eyes again, the ceiling had not fallen, and the flames were so far away. She wept in frustration.
A terrific crack brought the far end of the church into flames, eating away at the altar, consuming the dried straw cast in the corners of the stone floor. Amid the tears, Arienna smiled. It would not be long now, for already flaming pieces of wood splinters fell around her.
Above, Arienna watched the darkened night sky give away its hold on the last strands of pink and yellow to the sunset. A bird flew up and to where the ceiling had once been, a dove of midnight. It turned and gently alighted towards Arienna in her last moments, Death's voice filling her head, silencing the mental screams.
I have taken you, Arienna, die in peace.
The last supporting beam faltered, sending the inferno down around Arienna, a look of peace upon her eyes, and mouthed the words.