It was damp. The sky was in a perennial dark cloud. It seemed of a single mass, enveloping and overshadowing the town. The sun hadn't been seen, except through a haze, for weeks now. The clouds bore a cold rain, which had beat down without stop for the last three days, drenching the damp earth and forming little rivulets in the mud, which led downstream to a river, black in the darkness of the days. Men shivered in the rain, the cold reached their souls and spirited away any warmth in the blood.
Not a single clean road remained. The paving stones had been broken in the rains the previous year. Those who could repair them and build new ones were not around anymore. The cold, and the dark winds, had claimed them too. No one stepped outside anymore, for fear of the dark wind. The Black Wind, as some called it. No one knew what it was. It whistled past trees and homes, rattling wooden windows and frightening the children. Not just children, the men feared it too, as well as the women. It brought with it death, silent and swift. A healthy man could go to sleep one night and not wake up the next morning. Children died in groups, siblings and playmates. Women were found fallen on the street, still clutching vegetables already rotting in the evil air. It had come upon them. It had come upon them all, and even the priests had no answers except to pray.
The man in the black cape walked slowly, with measured steps. He chanted under his breath to himself, stringed beads in his right hand. With his left hand, he carried posies, flowers that somehow kept alive in these winds and times. They would ward off the evil, and his fingers clenched them in a death grip as he walked down the muddy path.
The rain had slowed to a drizzle, as good a time to be out as any he had seen in recent days. But this was not an ordinary constitutional today. He had been asked to visit. A family had called him to aid their son, an only son, who lay insensate in high fever for the past two days. The parents feared for his life and had called the young priest to heal the boy. He knew what he needed to do, but he did not know how much good it would do. Two days was a long time the boy had lasted. He could succumb to the Wind at any moment now. The priest did what he had to do, however, and bereavement would also be one of his duties.
A group of children was playing in the mud outside, near some trees. It may have been a meadow before, in better times, but now not a single blade of grass could be seen. They ran round and round in a circle, their dresses coated with mud, chanting words in glee. The innocent happiness of children was a blessing at all times, he knew, but parents should be more prudent in such times as this. Girls with their hair in neat ribbons and young boys ran together, round and round. Then they jumped down on to the muddy ground, chortling in joy. Their clothes were blackened with mud. They looked as if part of a funeral procession. The young priest wondered where their parents were. The dirt only increased the Wind's ire, everyone knew that.
Ring around the rosy
Pocketful of posies...
"The world comes to an end, father. The signs are for all to see now." said a voice from beside him.
The young priest jumped in alarm, to the other side. He had not sensed the man approach him.
"We must be brave at heart, at all times. Humanity must stand together even in days of plight and sorrow. Have faith in our Lord and you will yet be saved, my son", he said, more out of rote than anything else. Strangers always came to him for consolation, he expected that. But the numbers had increased of late, and he could hardly walk down any street without being consulted by a man in need of reassurance. They doubted the strength of their God. Death, cold and ruthless, would always hurt the human spirit. But senseless, strange and sudden death, like this, could crush it.
He had heard a lot of talk from the townsfolk, about the world coming to an end. Men had stopped coming to work, taking to the hills instead. Trades were drying up, the supply of fresh produce was lesser and lesser each day. It seemed as if the entire world was beginning to lose hope in its capacity for existence. The endless damp and the unforgiving cold may have shaken their faith, but it was the Wind that had destroyed their courage to survive.
The king, he needed to do something fast for his people. The Vatican should be consulted at the very least. God would not continue to let His children die this way. The high priests at the Vatican would have answers to that. But they had not spoken them out, if they did have them.
"Yes, the signs are all here. It is the end, father." repeated the man. He was taller than the priest, a good foot taller, and his clothes were ragged. They had the look of wealth to them though, wealth that had suddenly become pointless and of no value.
"What signs might these be, son? What do you see that shakes you so?" the priest asked patiently. It was his duty to calm the people as he may. If he could only help the man gain some peace, that would be enough.
"The world comes to an end, father, when even the children sing of death." he said, and pointed.
The priest turned to look at the group of children again, listening carefully to their chant.
Ashes to ashes
We all fall down!
They fell again onto the muddy earth, laughing in delight.
"Come away now", urged the young priest, "Do not pay heed. Come away!"
He cursed the Black Wind and walked again on his way. He walked hurriedly, not caring to splatter mud on his cape. He wanted to be out of earshot of the children.
Death. They sang of death. The end of all things. And the Black Plague.