The Plague Legends

"Saint Anastasius: his head as an amulet against plague and witchcraft." Wellcome Collection.

She wears a red skirt. She is sometimes a goat. She is a hag. She is beautiful. She is two people: an old man and an old woman, or a boy and a girl. Her name, when she has a name, is Pesta.

She is the ferryman’s passenger and he recognizes her face. He pleads for his life. He is a kind man. She can see this. She relents. She says: I’ll see what I can do. She speaks in an upbeat, almost cheery voice. You’re probably not on my list anyhow. She unfurls her scroll. She scans the names. She comes to a stop.

He is on her list.

Oh, I’m sorry, she says, and she is sincere. But her hands are tied. She lifts her staff, points it at the ferryman’s heart. His heart stops beating. He falls. He is spared, not of death, but of suffering. So that’s something.

* * *

The scroll arrives on our doorstep on a Friday morning in March. Our neighbor, who is an artist, leaves it as a gift. In an email, he writes that he hopes this ream of blank paper will give my husband and I something to do with our two children while we are sequestered inside because of the pandemic. On the first afternoon, my daughter, who is nine, cuts a long sheath from the scroll and claims a corner of the kitchen floor to work, as far away from me and her little brother as possible. My son paints a mural of the school where he attends kindergarten, which has been closed for five days now. There are 80 windows on its façade. (We count them, not from memory but from an image that I find on the internet.) Now there are two schools in my home—one on the computer screen, and one taking shape in the mural that my son is painting. There is a third, if you include the slapdash homeschool I am running in an effort to keep the children entertained. The third school mostly involves painting, and now, thanks to my neighbor’s kindness, we will never run out of paper to paint on.

* * *

If you see her approaching your village and she’s carrying a rake, it’s not good, but it’s better than if she’s carrying a broom. If she’s carrying a broom, no one will survive.

* * *

I number our days on a strip from the scroll, writing out what we will do with our endless spools of time. I write in pencil and my daughter carefully copies over my words with a thick black marker so that she can see them. Once finished, these activities become a statement rather than a suggestion and there are fewer arguments, but not none. Yesterday, I found my son, his nose bloodied, holding a fistful of his sister’s white hair. I yell and my husband yells. The children also yell. We howl like a pack of wolves, and we are caged, all together.

If we are wolves, I think, then we will go to the woods. This is on the scroll-schedule anyway. Every morning: Walk the dog. It is a trick of the mind. We are the dogs.

We go early to avoid seeing other people. We travel single file along a thin trail that cuts through unmarked bush rather than walk on the wide paths in the adjacent city park. Most mornings, we are alone. If we do pass another human, the children leap into the tall grasses and hold their breath. I think this may appear rude, but I don’t dissuade them. It’s probably not a bad idea.

At night, in our attic, which was my office before the university closed and it became my husband’s lecture hall, I research plague legends. These are mostly supernatural stories inspired by the Black Death, which happened in the fourteenth century and was the most fatal pandemic in human history. The legends I read were collected in Europe — although the internet can take me farther afield, to Russia or Japan, cholera or flu.

I have a small library of journal papers and collections of legends from when I was a graduate student in folklore. Legends are fragmentary narratives in which the action is immediate and presented as true. The characters are often nameless, with no back story, and identified only by generalities such as occupation, gender, or age. Legends cross class divisions, cultures, and generations. They are spontaneous, with no formal structure, and are not exclusive to a storyteller’s polished repertoire. Anyone can tell a legend.

Legends are nearly impossible to record in an organic setting and equally difficult to define, although some have tried. In 1958, Norwegian folklorist Reidar Thoralf Christiansen published a migratory legend index, a classification system that has been used by some scholars to group legends by theme and subtype. Since so many of these stories appear in different parts of Europe and North America — they recur with similar motifs, differing only in their specifics of place — the legends are thought of as “migratory,” as if traveling through geographies and across time of their own accord. Within this system of classification, a legend that incorporates supernatural elements and is told in the third person can be classified as a fabulate. This was once believed to be the truest, most poetic form of the genre.

The plague legends I seek out are bound by historical events and propelled by the collective fear of disease. But in form and function they are not unique from other narrative groupings. They also make use of the same motifs commonly present in other types of legends, such as spirits of the sea, or buried treasure, or — more contemporarily — food contamination, kidney-thievery, or hitchhikers who vanish at night. I find four types of plague legends in the original migratory legend index, and eight more appended by folklorist and UC Berkeley professor of Danish literature and culture, Timothy R. Tangherlini, in the late 1980s. All are titled and numbered like the rest: “ML 7085: The plague ferried across a river,” or “ML 7080b: Plague as a couple, young or old, with rake, shovel, broom and/or scythe.”

You could call my research mythological doom scrolling: the grimmer the legend, the more sated I am. I go to bed only once I’ve read the worst, most appalling pestilence tale I can find. The news cycle does not offer what I need to hear about humanity, but legends are travelers, shapeshifters, easily following the path of disease and transforming to capture our fears and societal problems. They are the real story.

* * *

The gentleman is a messenger for the King. He travels across the kingdom leaving gifts on behalf of the crown — along the roads, in people’s homes and, curiously, in the water in their wells.

But the gift is not for everyone. The gentleman does not visit the kingdom’s large cities, for instance. There are too many poor people living in the countryside, the King said to the gentleman before he embarked on his journey. Disperse the cholera there.

* * *

The voice I heard while reading legends quietly to myself had, for a long time, sounded anonymous, placeless, and from a different time, a stiff recording by some long-gone folklorist playing in my inner ear. But lately, this is changing.

One night, I am walking with a friend along one of the empty streets of our neighborhood. Her mother just called, she tells me, and worriedly relayed that pharmacies are running out of prescription drugs. Her mother insisted she’d heard this from a reliable source.

We continue on the road, six feet apart, looking over our shoulders for cars. We begin to swap other rumors, calling across the space that divides us. My husband’s childhood friend suggested chewing zinc tablets. My friend’s colleague is urging her workmates to buy winter boots for their children now, because the supply chains are breaking down and they won’t be available by fall. My sister heard — maybe from a friend, or from social media — that drinking warm water will flush the virus into your stomach, allowing it to bypass your lungs. My sister is now drinking small sips of warm water all day long. These are inaccuracies, and, logically, I understand this. But the fear that propels the rumors is real, gnawing, and impossible to ignore.

Back home, I tell my husband the stories I learned while out roaming the neighborhood with my friend. As I’m speaking, I remember from my studies that these are called FOAF (friend-of-a-friend) legends, tales that receive social validation through proximity to the source (“my sister heard…”; “her colleague said…”). I’ve come across these legends in my life before, but only occasionally. Never so many at once.

After that night, I begin to hear specific, modern voices when reading the plague legends. It’s as if these ancient stories are now being told by my friend’s colleague or her mother. I hear them in the voice of my sister, or my husband’s childhood friend.

* * *

When the ship beaches, there is no one aboard. No one alive, anyway; maybe the crew members remain in the vessel, but none have survived the journey. Because the ship is empty — or at least empty of the living — the villagers feel it is not a crime, moral or otherwise, to plunder it for its contents.

The villagers redecorate their homes with cargo: a captain’s chair, an oil painting of some faraway bride, monogrammed silverware to fill their drawers. They eat for days from the ship’s well-stocked larder. What good luck, they think, for these treasures to have arrived on our shores. Then, slowly, one by one, they begin to die.

* * *

I am reading the same legends that I studied as a graduate student ten years ago, but the stories are telling me something new and urgent. Legends can feel anonymous, as well as timeless and placeless, but they are often traceable to specific cultures and geographies. Some can even be ascribed to an individual — a storyteller who is sometimes named in a published text, although just as often remains nameless.

When small bits of personal information make their way into the narratives — a reference to an uncle or neighbor, a specific place name, use of the first-person — the legends are classified as memorates. These stories were once considered the bycatch of legend scholarship, not true legends, like the fabulates. In the past, legend scholars went so far as to remove scraps of context found in the memorates. Today folklore scholarship largely accepts that these personal details are fundamental to the study of folk belief, and that individual stories are universal.

There is a third classification for legends, chronicate, which rarely turned up in my studies. These are personal narratives that are not supernatural, and are considered to be based in fact. Chronicates are not easily categorized and, therefore, appear in the migratory legend index unnumbered.

By their nature, plague tales are collective and personal; the experience of a plague is both intimate and universal. And though they often appear with supernatural elements, they are sometimes true. They are memorate, fabulate, and chronicate.

* * *

Two orphans dig a hole, as instructed. The villagers say: “You can have your lunch in the hole! Jump inside! It will be fun!”

The little boy and the little girl jump into the hole, sit down, and begin to eat.

“Why are you throwing dirt on my nice sandwich?” the little boy asks the man with the shovel.

* * *

She is the only woman left alive. She wanders from village to village but finds no one. Once, she finds a footprint. She bends, kisses the imprint in the sand.

* * *

The basement is musty and patches of dampness mottle the earth floor, so I sit on a blue plastic IKEA bag to eat the Easter chocolate that I bought for the children. Both of them are upstairs looking for me. I stay quiet so that they cannot find me, so that they do not discover me eating the treats that should be theirs.

I risked contracting the virus by going to the local pharmacy to buy these crackly chocolates, I tell myself; therefore I deserve them. (So far, in this sitting, I’ve had eight.) When I ventured out, I brought the surgical mask that my father-in-law dropped off for me, but I sat in the parking lot for some time, deliberating about wearing it. I put it on, took it off, put it on again. Ultimately, wearing the mask made me feel like a criminal, so I left it in the car.

As I stood in line to pay, an older man barreled toward me and nearly bowled me over while his wife shrieked after him: Not too close! Not too close! I was trapped by a display of chocolate eggs and bunnies and chicks. He came too close. So did she, of course. I wished I’d worn that mask. I hardly heard the clerk at the check-out counter, but she had a sympathetic look in her eye. I bought so much candy that when I got back to the car and looked at the total on the bill, I wondered if the amount was a mistake.

While I eat the chocolate in the basement, I have dark thoughts. Having two children was a bad life choice, I think. They do not play together. They torture each other. It would be easier to homeschool just one child. Then I feel guilty. After a few more bites, I go upstairs and tell them I was doing laundry.

* * *

An officer in Japan is sent to investigate a disturbance at sea, a light on the water that seemingly has no source. His superiors would like to understand its origins, so, dutifully, he visits the shore to find out. There, aglow in the shallow water, he meets a charming woman who is half fish and half duck, and possibly also a mermaid with three tails. She is called the Amabie, and she delivers strange messages. Starting now, she says, a plentiful harvest will continue for six years. This is the good news.

But something is wrong. The Amabie implores the officer to draw a picture of her, and he asks her why. In the event of epidemic spread, she says, he should show her image to everyone. As she requests, he sketches her, carefully drawing her flowing hair, her diamond-shaped eyes, and the scales on her three tails. When he returns to the village, he shares his story as widely as he can. The villagers etch his drawing into woodblocks and publish it in the regional news — although most people only read the local bulletins for gossip and rumors. In this way, the story seems ephemeral, easily ignorable, but it persists. Whenever it is needed, even many generations later, the legend returns.

The Amabie is a pastel pink Easter cookie, a puff pastry, a scarecrow; on posters in the train station.
on Twitter, hitting her peak at 46,000 mentions a day; a collage, carved into a sausage with limp spaghetti for hair; a costume; the face of the government’s contact tracing app; felted, painted, global.

* * *

I unfurl a long piece of the scroll across the kitchen table and draw my best approximation of the Amabie. She has scales, a duck’s bill, long hair, and three mermaid tails. The children help me paint her. We hang her on our front door to ward off the virus. My son is entertained, delighted by the strangeness of my behavior and the new appendage to our home, but my daughter is on the cusp of finding me and my interests embarrassing and would prefer to hang a drawing of a rainbow in our window like everybody else. She asks that the Amabie stay on our door for only a few days. I’m not sure if this is enough time for the Amabie to do her job, but I honor my daughter’s wishes.

* * *

A woman in white — tall, with messy hair — arrives in the middle of a party. She says that everyone in attendance will be punished for dancing the polka. No one sees the plague coming, even though they were warned.

* * *

We couldn’t go to the public pool that summer. The playgrounds were closed. Our neighbor, who is nearly ninety, is leaning over her walker, telling me about a polio outbreak during her childhood in Toronto. We couldn’t play with other children. We stayed away from crowds. The beginning of the school year was delayed after summer vacation. We had to wait until October to go back. Parents taught their children at home.

In a flash, so brief and fleeting that I nearly miss it, I hear a different voice, telling a similar story.

We had to teach our children ourselves. The playgrounds were closed. We washed our groceries, even the packages and tins. We left our mail and other delivery boxes in the basement for three days before we opened them. We were trapped inside for months, for years. We were scared.

The narrative is spare, an echo-tale blurring what is personal and what is collective until it is difficult to recognize either. The story is a legend, and the voice is my own.

* * *

I write to our artist neighbor and tell him about the Amabie: how we painted her on the paper from his scroll and she now hangs on our front door, which faces his front door.

Everyone needs their amulets, he writes back. I’ll look out for her.

Days later, he writes again.

I’m clearing out my studio, and I have a bin of seashells, bits of wire, copper, and crystal from a chandelier. Might be fun for the kids to make sculptures with this stuff. Would you like it?

We would, I tell him, and the next day I discover a blue plastic tote on my porch. It is filled with shiny magenta Christmas balls, shells of all sizes, small pieces of framed glass with tiny flowers encased in them, copper spirals, ivory buttons, handfuls of beads, a mismatched pair of bulbous earrings made from seed pods, bits of wire, and a jam jar of chandelier crystals. Together, the children and I unpack the treasures, categorizing, as best we can, these disparate, magical items. We work methodically, deliberately slowing down time, making something from these fragments of the past — something beautiful, something surprising, something entirely new.

* * *

The girl is the only person left alive in her southern village. She climbs the mountain and calls out across the valley. There is a boy — the last of his village, too — who lives on the northern slope of the mountain. He hollers back in response. They find each other, marry, and have many children. They leave behind two place names: Call, in the south, and Answer, in the north.

* * *

I fold our painting of the Amabie into a manila envelope. With it, I stash one of our weekly schedules, my son’s mural of his school, and eighty printed pages of stories that I recorded from our lockdown spring. I write Time Capsule across the envelope in black marker and tuck it into the attic storage space where we keep our camping gear, extra blankets, and boxes of old photographs.

It will lie there, untouched, when the mask mandates come into place, when the children return to school in the fall, and when the school closes again in winter. It will remain, unchanged, when the virus mutates and becomes more infectious, when the first vaccines are approved, and when large groups of people refuse to take them. It will be there, largely forgotten, when the schools reopen yet again the next year, and when my two children walk there together, without me, for the first time.

As I stand watching them walk away, I will not think about the time capsule. I will watch as my daughter loops her arm protectively over her little brother’s shoulders and wonder if the enforced intimacy of the lockdowns changed their relationship, or if they would have grown this close regardless. Deep in the attic the time capsule will persist, inert, untouched, until some distant point in the future when my children discover this archive of fear and ordinariness. Just as there is hope embedded in the very existence of the plague legends, which continue beyond their own times, one day my children will unfold the artifacts of this time and understand that they have survived, and that they have a story to tell.