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By Faith Shearin

That winter, on our island, a flu arrived by fishing trawler; it was carried up the stairs of a cottage not far from our own on the hands of a visiting uncle, and soon all the Tillett daughters caught it: their faces flushed with fever, their lungs filling with fluid.

One of the Tillett girls, Julie, was in my sister, Beth’s, sixth grade class, and they shared a history textbook in which they were studying the European settlement of the New World. A few days after her recovery, Julie returned to school, thin and pale, and several evenings after that, my sister, Beth, was studying for a history test on The Lost Colony — a British colony that vanished on an island to the west of our own — when she felt a headache coming on.

Beth and I shared a bedroom: two twin beds, two wardrobes with Beth and Hazel printed on their doors, two windows we opened at night to let in the sound of the sea. But Beth sometimes suffered headaches: saw flashes of light, felt sick to her stomach, and our mother, Ruth, closed the curtains for her; I stayed in the TV room during these episodes, so Beth could be plunged into a silent darkness. The headaches preceded Beth’s periods, and were thought to be brought on by her rising hormones; I did not have my period yet, and hormones were vague to me; I understood they rose and fell like our tides; I knew that Beth was now in some danger that did not apply to me, that when she and her friends walked to school, past the men building cottages, or cleaning fish, there was reason to worry.

At dinner, I ate hamburger and peas beside Beth’s empty plate, and later, after Charlie’s Angels and the Tonight Show, I heard Beth coughing, and the sound of our mother’s feet climbing the stairs. By morning, my mother announced Beth’s headache had become the flu. Our father, Henry, caught it too, one day later, his briefcase unopened in the hall. He disappeared into the plush darkness of his bed: his law books stacked on the bedside table, his suit limp in the closet; I heard him in there, watching Westerns on his TV: gunfire, coughing, horses galloping across some unsettled territory.

My mother was worried I would get sick so she sent me to stay with my Grandma Scarborough, in her cottage on Sea Oats Trail, where there was a refrigerator full of cold tuna salad, and a record player that traced only Italian opera, and where a portrait of my Great Aunt Irene — a stern woman with a thin mouth — disapproved of whatever I did.

“I have seen the ghost of the injured pelican,” my Grandma told me.

“What does he look like?” I asked.

“He’s dragging an injured wing,” Grandma said.

“Is he looking for something?” I asked.

“He is looking for death,” Grandma said.

At school we studied how the early American colonies were settled, how Native Americans got sick when they were exposed to the germs of Europeans. We learned how viruses and bacteria mutated so our bodies could not become entirely familiar with them.

“Native Americans lived in relative isolation,” Mrs. Pendleton told us, “so they had almost no immunity.”

I raised my hand.

“Are we isolated?” I asked.

We studied the Dodo bird which lived happily until its island was invaded by sailors, and dogs, and rats.

I went home to a house that smelled of Lysol and menthol, and Beth coughed sometimes in the night, but she went back to school, and took a test on The Lost Colony; she got several questions wrong, including the reasons why no ships arrived from England to help the colony, and the possible meanings of the word Croatoan, which was a clue the vanishing colonists carved in a tree. I was troubled by this colony, which might have migrated, or died, or merged with a Native American tribe that produced a generation of children with dark skin and blue eyes; I was troubled by stories about strangers arriving from distant places and taking things from the natives: misunderstanding them, destroying their lives.

Beth was complaining about her grade on the history test when our father came home with a series of maps.

“Look at this, Ruth,” he said to our mother, who came out of a bedroom and leaned over the coffee table.

“What is it?” she asked, running her finger over a flat, blue sea.

“Some businessmen from New York want to buy all these villages and trailers, for a song,” our father said.

“What will they do with them?” I asked.

“Knock them down,” our father said, “Build hotels, shops, parking lots.”

“Can you stop them?” our mother asked.

“I can make them pay more than they want to,” our father said.

Before the birthday party, horses began gathering under the Tillett cottage at night. I thought, at first, this was because the Tillett children were the only children I knew who were allowed to touch the wild horses on our island; I had never seen our mustangs gather like this, in the evenings, with snowy egrets on their backs, their heads bowed: guarding the Tillett house, but also looking out, towards the sea.

I should tell you about the horses, which belonged to no one, and roamed freely through our maritime forests; they wandered through the unpaved neighborhoods at the edges of our villages, were once pushed off Spanish armadas, to lighten their loads, when their rudders got stuck in our shoals.

Our father told Beth and me those horses swam ashore five hundred years ago, through fog and storms, and they learned, somehow, to live on sea oats and beach grasses, to find fresh water by digging with their hooves; they were shorter than domesticated horses, and more stout; they had one less rib; our father told us those mustangs arrived before our own ancestors shipwrecked here, and were truer natives than Beth and I could ever be; he told us not to feed them, or touch them, because we might make them sick. Once, in summer, Beth and I saw a mare stride into our supermarket through the automatic sliding doors and stand, cooling herself, near the freezers.

They had gone into the darkness of Julie’s closet, while the other kids were outside, counting to sixty…

The horses were under the Tillett house when Julie had her first co-ed birthday party, the one my sister dressed for, carefully, in front of the full-length mirror on her wardrobe, where she tried on three different skirts and brushed her hair one hundred times; the flu had moved by then into the outer villages of the island: into the homes of widows whose husbands never came home from the sea, and into the quarters of lighthouse keepers; the whole staff of my father’s favorite seafood restaurant went home with it: their noses buried in handkerchiefs, their beds calling to them the way Sirens call to sailors.

Beth told me about the party later, and it was as if she spoke to me from the other side of an ocean: from the island of her bed to the island of mine; she told me how they had listened to the Rolling Stones singing “Wild Horses” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”; she and her friends had played spin the bottle in Juile’s bedroom, and Beth said she had managed to spin the glass soda bottle so it pointed to a certain dark boy, Caleb, with long hair, who surfed even during rip tides, and how they had gone into the darkness of Julie’s closet, where dresses hung softly around them, and kissed for one minute, while the other kids were outside, counting to sixty; she said the kiss felt like floating in the ocean at high tide. Beth said she did not understand why boys she had known all her life seemed suddenly exotic, foreign. After the party, Caleb came down with the flu, was missing from school for a full week, and, when he returned, Beth told me he was distant, shy.

The horses were under the Tillett porch, using their ears and tails to swat flies, when the Tillett children fell into some mysterious slumber; Julie caught the sleeping sickness first, her birthday presents still stacked on the table, the remains of her cake on a tray in the refrigerator; she laid down on the couch on a Saturday and did not rise again: her limbs heavy, her eyes darting behind her lids. Her younger sister, Amy, fell asleep two days later, then Phoebe, the smallest one, whose long black hair was photographed against a white pillow when our newspaper ran a story about a family of sleeping daughters.

Several summers before, Beth and I watched from our porch when a Tillett grandmother arrived from Pea Island, by ferry boat, carrying a stamped portmanteau up the stairs of the Tillett cottage. The Tillett parents went away, on a one week cruise, and the grandmother, who seemed too wild and pretty to be a grandmother — freckles, long auburn hair — attracted the horses. It seemed to Beth and me that the horses remembered her, because they came closer than they should have, and she leaned her head against theirs, in the wind. We were watching the day the grandmother placed all her granddaughters on the backs of wild horses, to take a picture with a camera that hung around her neck, and we saw how the horses stood still, feeling that human weight, and we were surprised when they did not run. The Tillett girls ran their hands along the slender necks of the horses, a thing I had always wanted to do; I watched them out there, and my heart filled with some unnamable longing.

“I saw the Tilletts sitting on the horses,” I told my father, in his study, where a map of sunken ships hung, framed, behind him, on the wall.

“Tilletts have belonged to these islands for as long as the horses, Hazel,” he said, “We have not.”

You may remember how, in “Briar Rose,” an entire kingdom falls asleep because its princess is cursed: cooks in kitchens asleep on bags of flour, farmers nodding off in their fields, cats purring in windowsills, hermits drifting off in caves. In Mrs. Pendleton’s fourth grade class, we learned that Europeans gave blankets infested with Small Pox to the Native Americans, pretending to be friendly, and the Native Americans accepted the gift: sleeping under contagion, deadly fevers. We read about the flu of 1918, which killed the young instead of the old.

The horses went on, keeping vigil under the houses of the doomed, and three more girls Beth’s age fell asleep after the flu: all girls from native island families, with the names that have always been written on our mailboxes and tombstones: Mallicoat, Basnight, Daniels. Horses were spotted under every cottage where sickness took root, as if they understood something about human grief and infection. (There would be scientists sent to our island, many years later, to inspect the DNA native to our coast, just as linguists were sent, when I was middle aged, to trace our unusual accents.) Most of the sleepers were girls from the Tillett birthday party, wearing their first lipstick, and I heard my parents talking, when they thought I couldn’t hear, about the possibility of contagion, about keeping Beth home from school. There was an assembly at which our school nurses stressed to all of us the importance of hand washing, and a doctor who came, from a distant town, far inland, to assure us that the sleeping sickness wasn’t likely to spread; it was, he said, believed to be an unusual immune response to flu.

I was aware of the horses moving in the shadows, aware of their violence and beauty. One evening, flying kites, Beth and I saw two stallions fighting: one reared up on his hind legs, a high, wild sound in his throat, biting the neck of the other.

“What are they fighting over?” Beth asked.

“Mares,” our father said, from his folding chair, where he tipped back a bottle of dark beer.

Later, alone on our pier, Beth and I saw a stallion chasing a mare down our beach, saw how he pursued her, powerfully, his legs muscled with desire, and how she ran, eluding him, her eyes dark with fear.

“Do the mares like the stallions?” I asked my mother later.

“The mares must be careful,” our mother said.

After this, at night, from the island of her bed, Beth told me that all the girls who had the sleeping sickness had kissed boys, so she felt sure she was going to get it.

“There aren’t any horses under our cottage,” I said.

There was some hope, at first, that the sleeping sickness wasn’t deadly, that the girls would wake up, one after another, like characters in fairy tales, like Sleeping Beauty, or Snow White. Then, Heather Mallicoat stopped breathing in her long Victorian nightgown, in a bed that had been placed on a screened in porch so she could enjoy the salt air and breezes. Her funeral, on a beach, with an open casket, was attended by horses who stepped out of the cypress forest, their manes like ocean waves.

When Julie Tillett died, Beth and I saw them carrying her away, feet first, down the stairs of her cottage, where her cake would never be eaten, and her birthday balloons would go on deflating in a corner of her bedroom, their strings tied to the bed. We saw her mother, Eleanor Tillett, crying, head in her hands, surrounded by horses.

One night, Beth felt a headache coming on, and I could see how this frightened my parents, though they pretended otherwise: our father was stirring a pot of soup on the stove, and our mother washed dishes, while the radio described a strong northeast wind, a storm brewing off Cape Fear, where the warm waters of the Gulf Stream met the arctic currents of the Labrador. The curtains were closed, and the lights turned off, but Beth asked me to stay in the bedroom with her, because she was afraid.

“What if I never wake up?” she asked.

I watched from the window for omens: the ghostly pelican our grandmother had seen, dragging his broken wing, or the wild horses, who had left the Tillett house, drifting towards other cottages, when Julie’s sisters woke up, thirsty, to a house with too many bedrooms.

I thought of contagion on blankets and lips, of everything dangerous and unfamiliar. I thought of the history book Beth shared with Julie, which sat on her desk, a picture of a ship dropping an anchor on its cover. I thought of how I could not touch the wild horses, or I would make them sick, but how Julie Tillett once sat on the back of one, her hands in its hair. I thought of my own body, growing dangerous, of the stallion chasing the mare. I thought of the maps my father laid on the table, of the land cut into neat parcels, and the ocean itself, which carried things.

I would make it safely through puberty but Beth would not. She would wake up in the morning, without sleeping sickness, but something else would happen later, something the headaches and sinking darkness might have foretold. In the future, our horses would be hit by sports cars, driving too fast; they would die eating apples, fed to them by strangers.

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One Comment

  1. Avigail Halberg
    Posted January 2019 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    I love your first sentence. Having worked in hospitals for years it is very refreshing to imagine the flu as a passenger; real tangible alive.

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