All Conquering Comma, by E.W. Farnsworth
The ship stopped in the water close to shore. I watched it from the hillside. It pumped water overboard for almost three hours. The brown pumped water spread like an evil mantle over the summer’s seawater, making the cerulean dun colored right up to the shore. I ran home to tell my parents what I had seen. They laughed at me. They said ships were always pumping their bilges into the sea right there. They did not think the incident I described was worthy of notice. I was not convinced.
The first signs of the sickness came three days later. Cholera was not unknown along the coast, but this time the symptoms were far worse than before. High fever and vomiting made a living hell. So many people died, grave digging became a problem. Whole families became sick. Work stopped. The people were fearful and fled the area. The fugitives took the disease with them. That way the virulent cholera spread to the north and the south along the shore and inland to every village along the paths to the mountain chain.
The doctors were frantic trying to treat their patients. Saline solution was in short supply and ran out quickly. The health authorities warned against eating raw foods or drinking contaminated water. It was much too late for precautions. The plague raged throughout the land. The government tried to manage the news to lessen the panic. One reporter who was brave enough to write the truth was now in hiding, fearful for her life. No one was fooled by the propaganda trumpeting all was well.
I did not bother telling anyone about the ship pumping its bilges overboard right offshore. My parents were afraid I would catch the disease, so they sent me into the mountains to visit relatives. Reluctantly, I left with a small parcel tied to a stick. My parents wept at our parting. I knew I might not find anyone alive when I returned. As I followed the narrow paths into the mountains, I saw the effects of the plague everywhere. Entire villages were stricken. I was not welcomed because the people feared I would bring the dread disease. I kept moving, eating what I could find in the dense woods and sleeping on the ground at night. As I climbed increasingly higher, the temperature dropped. It rained. I did not mind the rain. It felt cool and it cleansed my body. I drank the rain water without fear because I had been told only standing water carried the plague.
I thought I would find a village unscathed by the disease, but the farther I walked, the more I was convinced that the disease was now general. It was a scourge on all the people of the land. When I crossed the top ridge of the mountains, I met a health worker who questioned me about where I had come from and what I had seen. I told her the whole story. She wrote what I said in a notebook. She seemed excited about my account of the ship pumping its bilges. She asked probing questions about that. She told me that a reporter had written a story about the ship but she was now in hiding down by the shore. The health worker told me I should not tell anyone else about the ship. She said she would have to talk with the authorities about what I had said. She promised she would not tell them my name.
I followed a river down the mountains to the village where my relatives lived. The place was deserted. I slept that night in the empty village and pressed onward the next morning in a thick fog. For the first time during my journey people came from behind me and passed me in haste. They carried large sacks. I knew the signs of the drug cartels. I saw by the side of the path a thin man who had fallen and died of the sickness. His sack lay by his side. I did not touch the sack because the sick man had held it. I walked quickly hoping I could evade the trafficker bosses. The lines of communication for drugs were also transmitting the plague. The traffickers did not care about lives, only about their supply. I did not want to become a runner because once you begin they will never set you free.
I came to a clearing where a processing plant had been set up. I skirted the area and noticed a burial was in progress. Many bodies were stacked near a large, open pit grave. I watched as two men flung the dead bodies into the pit. They did not see me because I remained in the dense foliage. Regaining the path below the area, I began to encounter runners coming from the opposite direction. They carried sacks. I made way for them as they hurried up the path. The runners did not appear to be sick. Later I came to a village where the sick were lying on blankets outside their dwellings.
A health worker was trying to get the sick to eat something. Those who tried to eat vomited uncontrollably afterward. He told me the sick were all who remained. The other villagers had died or fled to the mouth of the great river. He said the comma was conquering the whole nation. The cholera grew in cells the shape of a comma. He knew a lot about the disease, but he had never seen it kill so many during an outbreak. He said he was sickening now. Perhaps he would die. He told me not to eat anything raw. He told me not to drink unboiled water.
I continued following the water down the mountain. All villages along the path had been visited by the disease. Some villages had posted guards who blocked people from entering or leaving the area. I saw the sick alongside the path in greater numbers as I approached the small port area by the mouth of the great river. Some of those sick had died. Others seemed to have given up. At the port I learned I could pay to ride a large boat or take my chances on a makeshift raft for free. I chose to ride the raft because I did not want to sail with others at close quarters. I wanted to stay away from anyone who might be sick. I grabbed a long pole and pushed off from the shore on a raft made of four large timbers tied together. The flow of the river carried my raft downstream.
Along the river’s banks were villages where burials were being conducted. I passed one village where an old man waved me by while lamenting that the plague was everywhere. He said the cholera had taken his wife and beautiful daughter that morning. He had just buried them. His hollow eyes and gaunt frame indicated he might be in the early stage of the disease. I was glad not to put ashore. I resolved to keep to the middle of the river as much as possible. It was good that I did that. A young, sick boy tried to swim out to climb on my raft but he never made it. I watched him sink below the water and not come up again. Farther down the river, I saw bloated bodies floating near the banks. One floating mass had carrion birds feasting upon it. A crow pulled on a red strand from the rotting corpse. A shiver ran up my spine.
I only touched the shore where I saw edibles growing in the dense jungle foliage. I was never hungry during my travels. I carried what I needed and harvested whenever I could. The huge motorized boats for hire passed my raft with increasing frequency as the river carried me to the east. The passengers would line the sides of those boats to peer at me floating on my raft. The sick on some boats would eruct or defecate uncontrollably into the river. In one case two men pushed a sick woman overboard. She could not swim. Clawing at the water she sank and drowned. Then she rolled onto her back and floated along with my raft until she sank again.
At night I saw burials by torchlight. I heard sounds of drums and wailing. When it rained and fog rolled in, I could not see much farther than the end of my raft. A body would bob nearby and pass behind me. I used my pole to keep the dead at bay. I cupped my hands to catch the clean rain water and drank it greedily. Along the north bank I heard a great wailing as if the whole world were complaining about the plague. I felt as if I were floating along a river of the dead and dying. Alone I felt lost and lonely. Blind on account of the rain, I used my pole to push off from one bank or the other. The best place for me was the middle of the expanding river. Only once did I regret my strategy. An enormous fish came up beneath my raft. Its back lifted my raft and lowered it as the behemoth sank beneath the flowing water.
When the rain stopped and the sun shone, the brown water seemed to be running faster than it had done before. The river was wide now and full of debris. Here and there small islands rose. I had to use my pole to navigate around them. I found myself pushing and polling towards the southern bank where a village dropped right down to the water’s edge. A girl with large eyes and long black hair played on a pier. She waved at me tentatively. I waved back. She asked whether I had the sickness. I told her I was not sick. I asked her about her village. She shook her head and ran back into the village as if she had heard someone calling her. My raft floated by.
Night and day I floated down that mighty river. Rain alternated with sunshine. Villages were increasingly numerous. The sickness still raged. Bodies floated near the banks. Burials were conducted. Motorized boats were now congesting river traffic. Mine was the only raft.
It floated into a large metropolitan area. I was noticed. A group of feral children lined the bank to watch me pass. Some waved. I waved back at them. Some ran along the bank watching me carefully. I saw motorized barges moving up both sides of the river with masked men using grappling hooks to fetch aboard bodies. The bodies already fetched lay in great piles on the flat areas of the barges. The bodies were black with flies. The sweet stench from the rafts filled the air. I poled over to a low stairway leading up from the river. For the first time in weeks, I climbed to the shore. There another group of feral children, girls and boys, met me. They had no parents. They lived on what they could find. They were dressed in rags and looked hungry. Their teeth were rotten and their bodies full of sores. They were glad to have me join them.
I remained with the children for a week. I learned how they used the sickness to their advantage. No one else wanted to go near a habitation where the plague had been. The city authorities were overtaxed dealing with the burials. The medical authorities could not keep up with the rising number of patients. So the feral children roamed from house to house. When they discovered that the inhabitants had fled or died, the children plundered everything they could carry. They occupied the dwellings as long as they could. When they moved on they took the clothing, the money, the food and the valuable properties. I ran with them. We feared no police because they were too busy dealing with the plague to bother with us.
I thought the pattern was too good to last. The group discovered a lady who had only recently died. When we moved in to her house, two of our group sickened. I saw the signs and fled. I roamed the city alone foraging independently. I came across other feral groups that had been stricken. I saw the enormous trucks the authorities used to pick up corpses. They would drive from house to house calling for the people to bring out the dead. The trucks were filled quickly. They took the bodies to mass graves dug on the outskirts. The harvest continued around the clock.
I walked past the gated areas where the wealthy citizens lived. They lay silent and unkempt. Some said the plague had killed everyone inside those precincts. I ventured inside one to discover that no one was there. I decided to take advantage of the situation. I lived well for almost two weeks. I bathed in running water every day. I ate from the stockpiles of food I found in every house. I dressed in clothes I found in closets. I found lots of money right out in the open. That gave me an idea: with the money I could go back home. I gathered as much as I could carry and made for the port area where I had landed my raft.
At the pier I asked about the plague upriver. The medical authority told me that the plague was burning out fast. Fewer cases were being reported every day. People going by ferry were being checked, they assured me.
In the end, in caution I decided against taking a ferry where people were closely associated with each other. I hired a fisherman who knew the river and needed the money. He agreed to take me up the river to its head for a large fee. I agreed to pay him an equal amount to get back home again. I should have known from the greed in his eyes he had something else in mind.
The fisherman carried me up the river slowly. While we motored, he fished. We ate well during our passage. I could not understand all he was saying, but I got his view of the plague. He saw it as the judgment of God against all mankind. His entire family had been wiped out by the sickness. He had become sick but miraculously recovered. Now he was alone but he was a survivor. The way he said this, it was clear to me that he intended evil.
That night in a heavy downpour the fisherman came for me. I had anticipated his coming by lying in wait behind the door with a lead weight in my hand. The fisherman went to my cot and found the cloth I had knotted up to look like my body. He looked around just as I dealt him a lethal blow to his forehead. He collapsed on the deck. It was all I could do to lift his body out of the berthing space and over the gunwale. I watched as the body sank beneath the river. Now I was on my own but I had the fisherman’s boat and all my money. I continued motoring up the river.
I did not notice as many bodies going upriver as I had on my raft going downriver. Maybe my speed was the difference. I made good time and moored to the pier at the small port area at the river’s head. The port authority was happy to buy the boat with no questions asked. It paid in cash. I now had so much money I had to find ways of hiding it among my possessions. When I was informed that the plague was now subsiding, I began the long climb back up the mountain.
I encountered the drug runners during my ascent. They kept clear of me as I did of them. I passed the area where the refinery had been, but it was no longer there. I kept well clear of the villages along the path more because I feared robbery than because of the plague. It took me the same number of days to reach home from the port as it had taken me to go the other way. The difference was the absence of evidence of the sickness. It seemed that the plague was now only a bad memory. Life had returned to normal.
I found my parents well and working hard in our family’s dwelling. They said they were glad to see me though they feared I had died. When I showed them the money I had gained while I was traveling, they marveled at it. They refused to take any of it because I had earned it and deserved to spend it myself. I fell back into the routine I followed before the sickness arrived. For two months normalcy returned to my life. I began to get restless because my trip had taught me that the world was much larger than my village. Then when I was away by the shore the authorities showed up at my parents’ home looking for me. A gringo was with them. They told my parents they wanted to talk with me about the ship I had seen emptying its bilge water offshore before the plague struck. They said they would be back to discuss this. My parents told me about this and warned me that it meant trouble.
I wasted no time packing my few belongings, some food and my money. I bid my parents goodbye without saying where I was going. I left the village that night. This time instead of following the paths that led to the great river, I decided to head north along the high ridge of the mountains. I did not fear the all conquering comma. I feared my government.
I am still on the run after twenty years, but the authorities have not found me yet. Governments have long memories, but one day they may tire of pursuing me. I hope and pray they do. Then perhaps I can go home again. Sometimes I wonder which is worse, the ravages of plague or the cover ups of governments afraid to let the public know the truth. I don’t regret having seen the ship that brought the plague or having reported what I saw to my parents or to the health worker on the mountain. I do feel sympathy and empathy for the investigative reporter who dared to report the truth in her newspaper. She is still in jail, and I fear the authorities have thrown away the key.
E.W. Farnsworth writes science fiction, thrillers, and suspense. Find out more at EWFarnsworth.com.
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Tags: conspiracy, death, E.W. Farnsworth, illness