Harlen Campbell

"A writer of fiction has just one obligation -- to entertain the reader.
Only if he has done that superbly can he deal with his personal concerns in a story."

This story was written around 1971 as an exercise for a class in a creative writing program. For inspiration, I mined a dream I had at about age 12. Before this dream, I enjoyed the usual childish nightmares: monsters, dismemberment, flame, and the like. I often jerked awake, panting and feverish in the heart of the night, but I awoke from this dream with a cold horror, and no nightmare ever frightened me again.

The March of Physicians

The boy lives with his family in the center of a wide depression in the earth called the Plain of Liefe, within the massive walls of the city of Pelar, which rises from the plain like a fortress against the plague. Beyond the city, beyond the plain, the desolate hills of Ven stand sentry for the plague.

No man can say where the plague came from. It struck first at the peasants who worked the vineyards on the slopes of the hills, and so horrible were its effects that the hills were deserted within two generations. It then crept toward Pelar, a slowly tightening circle of land gone bad, as the hunters and fishers, the herdsmen and small farmers, retreated into a shrinking island of safety centered on the city.

The walls of Pelar, over thirty feet thick and three times that in height, resisted the attempts of the plague for more than a century. Rooftops, streets and empty lots were converted into gardens. Men suffered from confinement and hunger. Women wept in passion and childbirth. Children were born, lived a time, and died. Life, in short, followed its course while the walls held. But time weakens even stone. Eventually, the plague came inside, and the suffering began in earnest.

The physicians report that when the plague enters a man, it enters each cell of his body and makes that cell into itself. A man does not catch the plague; he becomes the plague. Hands and feet, liver and brain -- all of the victim is touched and converted into a form of life incompatible with mind, soul or whatever essence it is that knows its lot and can despair.

And it is for eternity. Those touched by plague may pray for death, but they do not die. If they are starved, the plague feeds on itself. If they are hacked apart, each piece lives on in screaming silence. Relief can come only if each individual cell is taken apart by its molecular building blocks. Only a biological process, only digestion, could do that, and no man would willingly take the plague into his own bowels. There is not enough love for that, not in the city, not in the world. And so the physicians march each day at dawn.

The boy often follows the parade as it winds through the dim streets of the city. He is drawn by the spectacle. The deep scarlet robes of the physicians, with the design of the large green hand worked twice into each robe, over the chest and over the back, proclaim the importance of the parade. The slow, slow steps of the cowled and masked figures as they move from door to door emphasize the gravity of their mission. The masks are a kindness, that none might know which of his neighbors condemns him.

The boy does not follow the parade alone. None but the physicians enter the streets before dawn, but from each house, as it is cleared, the pure join the parade. Some are curious to see which of their neighbors will be taken by the physicians, and some to see which will be passed over. The entire business is done in silence.

For those found guilty of the plague, there are the green cap and the cart which leads to the basket on the wall. Each day at least one man, woman or child is taken. On many days the cart is full. The physicians, followed by a steadily increasing crowd, twist through the streets to the wall. There the basket is raised and lowered in silence, until the cart and the city are empty of plague. Then the crowd dissolves and the boy turns to home.

His mother, relieved to find her family safe for another day, smiles over the breakfast stove. She is satisfied with twenty-four hours before the physicians march again. Together, they wait for his father to return. He spends his mornings with his father in the garden, his afternoons with his friends in the streets of Pelar. Sometimes they whisper of forbidden things, of girls and sex or, with greater shame, of the plague and the Hospital. But usually they laugh. They play ball and chase and hide-and-seek and, as often as not, he leads in the games.

He is an only child and perhaps receives a greater portion of love from his parents than do his friends. If so, he is unaware of it. He knows only that he is never quite so comfortable as when he sits by his father in the hours after supper and listens to the quiet voices of his parents as they discuss domestic affairs by the dying fire. A warmth then suffuses the room which exceeds that generated by the glowing logs, a warmth the boy never wonders at because it never occurs to him that his happiness might be in the least unusual, or any other than the universal lot of man.

His days build into months, his months into years, until the boy passes into his thirteenth summer. Each night he falls into a sleep which begins peacefully, but which grows more and more troubled as the passing hours tell the steady approach of the marching physicians.

He is not alone. As dawn approaches, the whole city begins to turn and stir in its sleep, as though touched by a foul dream. And in five households around Pelar, women wake and watch in silence as their men slip into the false dawn, bundles of freshly-laundered scarlet robes slung over their shoulders. The boy's mother wakes and watches with the others. Still, life is pleasant for the boy, until he wakes up sick.

There is an ache which lives in the muscles and bones of feverish men. There is a quivering of the guts and a weakness of the limbs recognized only by the habitually drunk. In the absence of fever and alcohol, these are the signs by which the plague's first touch is known.

The boy aches. His stomach crawls. He touches his cheeks and finds them cool. He rolls onto his side and faces the door and waits for his mother to come to see what keeps him in bed. His eyes fill.

When she comes for him, his mother carries alarm in her eyes. And when she finds him lying awake, his eyes wide and fixed on her, she stops just inside the door and stares at him. She scrubs biscuit flower slowly into her apron. A sob catches in her throat. "No," she says.

He looks at her, tries to fix her in his memory, and says nothing. She floats across the room through the dim first light and kneels at his bedside. He lies soundlessly watching her. His eyes seemed to swell in their sockets and his pillow grows damp as the room grows light.

His head is clear. His thoughts are dominated by a sharp regret that encompasses everything he has seen or touched in his life: his father's garden, his mother's whitened apron, his private tender flesh. A kind of sweet pain attaches itself to each thought, a pain that gathers them all together and creates a sort of unity where none existed before. He ascribes the pain to the coming of the plague and tries not to think.

Almost an hour passes in the silent room. The sun inches over the horizon and puts color into his mother's dress, but not her cheeks. A quiet susurration comes into the room: the whisper of voices and steps mingling in the street beyond his window. There is a knock at the door. The physicians' three soft taps. The woman sighs and rises, wringing her apron, to answer the knock.

The room seems empty after she leaves. The boy struggles to sit and swings his feet weakly to the floor. He dresses carefully in his best clothes. Everything he leaves will be burned.

When he opens his door, five scarlet men stand in a row, his mother to their right. One of the physicians starts forward, checks himself, and then advances slowly. The boy stands quietly for his testing, as he always has. The man's hand trembles slightly as it touches his body, probing and hoping for absence of plague, and it trembles violently as it places the green cap on his head. It squeezes his shoulder very hard and leads him silently from the house. He is the first to be taken that day. He climbs into the empty cart without help and looks over his neighbors with a burning face.

The cart follows slowly as the physicians move from house to house. It waits outside one door for an interminable time, and the physicians emerge with a girl, about a year older than the boy. She wears a rose-colored dress with a grown-up touch of lace at her neck. She has fixed her hair carefully, and a flower peeks from beneath her green cap.

Green. Of all the rainbow colors with which the people fight the grayness of the lowering sky, of the city's stone walls and of the dismal, circling hills, green alone is universally avoided.

The cart stops again on its journey to the wall. A baby, completely muffled in a new pink blanket, a soft pink blanket tied around with a broad green sash, is placed on the floor of the cart. The boy and girl both stoop for the infant, but she looks at him and he steps back. Then she stands closer to him and cradles the baby against the bumps of the cart.

When they reach the wall, the boy climbs from the cart first and the girl hands the child to him. He is surprised at how soft its bones are, how like rubber. The plague must come faster to babies, he thinks.

The physicians take up the positions custom prescribes. One leads, two flank, and two follow as they pass through a gauntlet of their neighbors. They march up a ramp which climbs the inner face of the wall. It is not steep, yet they ascend slowly. The physicians set the pace. Step. Pause. Step. Pause. Like the beating of an enormous heart.

The top of the wall approaches steadily. The up-turned faces of the boy's friends fall below him. The rooftops of Pelar fall below him. On top of the wall, he stops and looks around. The hoist bends like a mourner over the outer edge of the wall. The basket hanging from it is big enough to hold a dozen adults. Up close, it looks like nothing so much as a giant cradle.

Two physicians lower the cradle slightly and wave them into it. Each pauses for a moment, for a backward glance at the city, before stepping over the basket's side. Once they are in, the basket swings out into space and the other physicians join the two at the winch. They begin a slow descent.

The unforgiving stones of the wall replace the boy's view of the city, and he feels as though his eyes are on fire. As they drop, the boy and girl look out over the plain. It stretches empty to the hills, a land from which human order has retreated so completely that man might never have held sway there. Deformed trees crawl along the ground, barely able to rise above the shrubbery. The general effect is of a land supremely old, supremely evil.

The basket swings back and forth, like a pendulum, as the cable lengthens. The boy puts his hand on the small of the girl's back to steady her, and himself. Her muscles tighten instantly under his hand, then gradually relax. She holds the child more firmly.

He leans out over the edge of the basket and peers along the face of the wall, looking for the thing he had whispered of in the streets. Carefully. His bones burn at white heat and his muscles twitch. The plague is working in him as it worked in the baby.

He finds what he seeks far to the right: a flat, one-story building crouched low against the foot of the wall. It looks strange and it takes him a moment to discover the reason. The location. The building is on the wrong side of the wall. Like the cradle, it is outside and unprotected. He takes his hand from the girl to point. "Look," he whispers, "the hospital. . . ."

She nods. They stare at the hospital with a mixture of hope and apprehension. The plague moves quickly once it is in a body, and it is strong in both of them. Their pain is increasing. They need help. The basket steadies under them with a jerk that sends them to their knees. The boy climbs carefully from the basket, clings to its side until his strength returns, and takes the baby from the girl. As she hands it to him, the covering blanket falls away. They stand frozen, staring at the child.

Every muscle in its body is taut. Its skin is strongly colored with the plague's green taint. Its face twists and bulges with an infinitely desperate scream, a cry for mother, for help, for an end to pain, but no sound escapes the yawning mouth. Eventually the boy lays the infant on the ground and helps the girl from the basket. She rests. Then she walks over and looks down at it. A minute passes before she stoops for it. They turn toward the hospital. She carries the infant by one leg.

The trip to the hospital is slow. They both are growing weaker, steadily more distracted by the fire in their blood. Walking is difficult on legs that bend under the weight of their bodies. They rest as often as their need permits, and then they walk.

As they near the hospital, their steps grow desperate. It does not look promising, though. The ground is dusty and barren, without cooling vegetation near the building. This, together with the lack of a door in the entrance facing them and the absence of any sign of human life, makes their hurry seem futile. Still, it is the hospital. There is nowhere else to go. They stagger the last few yards, reach the entrance and enter a room. Enter a room. . . .

The girl screams. She almost falls and she drops the baby and she screams. The boy can't scream. He feels that his stomach has swollen until it fills his chest. He hasn't the air for a scream. He gags and looks at the furnishings of the hospital, at the wreckage of human beings.

Bodies are scattered over the floor, some whole, but most partly eaten. All that are complete enough to be recognizable are twisted and deformed by a total, ultimate convulsion. Eyes start from heads and mouths gape an incessant, mindless cry for cessation. Here and there a disembodied leg or a disemboweled organ throbs. Even the stains on the wall and floor seem to pulse, to squirm and devour themselves.

And nothing rots. There is no stench but a stench in the eyes, a visual nausea that colors even the blackest shadow with the plague's purest green. Everything lives, with the life that only the plague can give.

The boy cannot vomit, of course. The plague retains itself. After an unmeasurable time, he feels his hand taken and the girl pulls him away. They sit in the dust beyond the door, in the shade cast by the building, and watch the shadow of the wall creep toward them as the sun rises. They hold on to each other listlessly. Each watches his own pain grow, his own strength decline, and thinks of the scene within.

When the shadow is gone, the girl stirs, stands, enters the room and returns with the child. She lays it on the ground between them. They stare at it in silence under a neutral sky. Then they eat what they can of it. They wait out the rest of the day, feeling firmness seep from their bones. Late in the afternoon, the girl moves to the shade of a large stone. She is not yet willing to seek the coolness of the hospital.

She has to crawl, and even so her arms keep bending out from under her. The boy watches. He makes no move to help her. He gave the last of his mercy to the child and will endure where he lies.

At times he is aware of his body convulsing, but mostly he is aware of pain. And what pain! A searing star is born in each cell of his body, and swells, and swells. The pain knows only one direction: increase. It is unbearable, yet it must be borne.

When night falls, he still hasn't tasted the fullness of the agony that is the plague. He has lucid moments. Shortly after dark he becomes aware of a general stirring within the hospital, the whisper of flesh scraping stone. He makes himself turn. He sees the last, lonely steps in the march.

The hospital is emptying. Each body or part of body wriggles or squirms, if it cannot crawl, out from the doorless room and across the Plain of Liefe toward the surrounding hills. The boy doesn't understand. Using his arms and legs like flippers, he joins the procession. He struggles desperately to catch the lead.

He hurts. He sweats and he eats dirt and he hurts, but he flops closer to the head of the parade. He passes the girl without a glance. He has to be first, wherever the procession leads. Then he hears the howling of the wolves as they come out of the hills to feed at the walls of the city of Pelar. He crawls harder.

Copyright © 1995, Harlen Campbell
Posted May 25, 1995.
Ported to PHP August 23, 2015.

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Copyright ©1995-2015 Harlen Campbell — Last updated August 21, 2015.