By F.J. Nita Wilson
Annette awakened in her own filth and tried to look around the room. Her mouth was dry as cotton as her granny used to say and strands of hair were stuck to the roof of her mouth; some matted and glued to her forehead. Her nightgown was damp and clinging to her frail body, but the fever was gone and she could see bright light through the closed shutters of her bedroom. She vaguely remembered the men coming down the hall carrying the last member of her family on a stretcher, but she would carry the image of her father’s once strong arm swinging lose under the sheet as the tired men carried him out to the wagon loaded with the bodies of friends and neighbors. She’d had funerals for her mama and the twins, but by the time her Uncles died, she had to pay a man to leave their bodies at the gates to the cemetery with a note to put them in the big family crypt. Annette nursed her grandmother, but then took sick. The last she remembered of her sweet grandmother was her father’s begging the men with the stretcher to be careful with his mother, as she was fragile. Annette must have outlived the yellow jack, but was it a blessing or a curse? She outlived it only to be left alone at sixteen in a house once full of joie de vivre, but now full of la mort et la misere. She couldn’t think about her losses right now, she needed to bathe. She hated being dirty and she smelled bad. If she didn’t get some life back into this hot dank room, she would fade away and join her loved ones; she could hear them, see them, smell them, moving in and out of the shadows of the once sunny room, living in a world she wouldn't see, but she didn’t want to join them.
She got up and stripped the bedclothes from the big bed and carried the heavy linens, down the stairs into the back courtyard almost tripping over the end of a once beautifully ironed, linen sheet now soiled with her own sweat and illness. She managed to put them in the big tub under the water pump. A storm was coming up the river from the Gulf of Mexico; maybe it would relieve the heat and take away the stench of death and sickness. She pumped water over the dirty wet sheets and began to pour water from the big tin pitcher over herself and her hair. She picked up the slippery bar of bathing soap and soaped herself all over. No reason why she couldn’t wash her nightgown while it was still on her; people had surely done sillier things after such a plague. She peeked at the dirty soapy water running out of her now clean hair, leaving her hair and body like the horrible disease creeping out of the city after taking its greedy helping of souls. She twisted her long hair into a rope to get the excess water out and reached for the bathing towel hanging stiffly from the last use a week or so ago. She took off her nightgown and wrapped it in the big towel wrung out as much water as she could and put it back on, clean, cool and damp on her skin. Now, she could think. Picking up the big laundry paddle she pushed the sheets down into the tub of soapy water and decided to leave them to soak. The kitchen door was open and a bird flew out when she approached, God only knows what else has made a home in here, she thought and walked in. It was strangely clean with a pot of moldy soup on a back burner of the very cold stove. All the dairy products would be rancid and any bread would be full of mold, but there were no dirty dishes in the big sink and the table was clear, the big friendly kitchen just needed life; she jumped at the sound of the front bell and could hear footsteps coming down the brick walk into the courtyard and up the old wooden staircase. She wiped her hands on a dish towel and grabbed a big apron left thrown over a chair by Annie when she went home to nurse her own family. The men were coming back down with their stretcher as she crossed the courtyard.
It’s a strange feeling watching yourself in death, being carried with your dirty hair and nightdress out into the street; how frail I look, how fragile, how peaceful.
“But wait,” she called, “I’ve washed my gown and my hair. Take this me, not that me. This me is clean and ready.” But no one noticed, no one heard and no one was left to care. She turned back to the kitchen and realized, she had no hunger, no thirst and no reflection in the big mirror over the wash basin in the corner.