Written for the Ghost walk by Billy O’brien, performed by Ely Todd-Jones
The Silence of the Flies
The Drang, Chagford, at night.
A pale girl wrapped in a cloak and holding up a lantern, peering with kindly face.
I welcome you all… Kind sirs. Sweet ladies….
I welcome you all!
Do you find it cold?
I find it most miserably cold… day after day.
Are you comfortable… can you hear my words?
Then I shall begin…. I have much to tell!
August, The Year of Our Lord 1666
I remember it was hot that day… hot all summer.
It was the cow giving blood with the milk that I remember… in the heat and the silence… (though not as silent as later on) …she weren’t with calf… the cow.
…no beestings that milk,
…growth from mother for a new suckler,
…no …no calf inside her!
…and this blood not welcome, just black-clotted blood, squeezed out into the bucket with the milk,
…and the woods still and heavy in the heat.
The flies woke me each day… they crawled on my face, …got caught in my hair!
…my Uncle tried hanging a foul smelling basket of over-ripe fruit…
…he said it kept them off – but I think it drew them closer.
The stranger: had his travelling cloak on
…I noticed it, …because of the heat
…and because it were red… a blood like red!
He were young, fair haired – and all commented on his beautiful smile… he stood on the Western road at the edge of the trees,
…and stared at our village in the valley
…and the birds stayed away.
We didn’t hear the crows for a month or so.
…Just a peculiar silence.
He ate his meal outside the Inn and some of us gathered. He said nothing.
…As the day wore on more gathered… men and women from the fields as word of his presence spread.
When he seemed to judge the crowd suitable enough, he asked us questions, in a quiet voice and listened patiently to our answers.
“Nope… No people came through here in the last week.”
I thought; ‘it could be a month since we’d seen a soul’. “Nope… We’d heard no hunt… no horn in the distance. No hounds howl.
“Relatives from away… stayed away.”
“His Lordship’s exchequer men did not pass through.”
“No monk, nor vicar came.”
“…we’d waited for the mass but the church remained empty.”
“There’d been no sunday service, for a month”,
…something about the heat and the flies had whisked away all our concern… but that concern grew with his plain questions. I felt it all around.
“Any sick?” he’d asked.
“Any unusual… signs?”
I could not help myself (though I regretted it after) …I told him about our cow and the clotting dark blood and the milk going sour.
And others, like a flood, murmured likewise – of beasts strangely ill …of the birds quiet.
And …the unusual amount of flies.
He stood then and still with that smile… he talked and he talked and he talked.
…he told us of doom.
…of the last days as written.
…of repentance and sin
and of a SPREADING PLAGUE… soaking through the countryside and taking with gnarled hands the young the old, the sinners and the sinned against!
We knelt in silence before him… but accompanied still by the buzzing of the flies!.
He took a drink of water… I saw his Adam’s apple move and clearly hear his gulping swallow.
He looked around and pointed at a small, tumble down house. “Is SHE here?”
Old mother Wright… harmless… half mad.
…I did not think to ask how he knew of she.
…heads nod in the direction.
I don’t know if it is a madness, this giddy belonging feeling among a gathering like that,
…but some I saw were too eager to put things together in their own heads.
He did not mention Old Mother Wright again, but I saw several women turn and stare at her tumble down house with eyes that were changed… turned grey… turned cold – like granite on a November morning.
He changed the subject then… sat back down and talked quietly about the Lord sending him to warn all the hamlets,
…to warn us.
“He was”, he said, “a medical man – from the town” and that, “he knew of this plague… it’s sickness and… it’s signs…”
…and (so quiet we had to lean in) – “It’s cause!”
He examined each of us… checking our hands, “For”, he said, “…it is in our hands that the pestilence leaves its sign!”.
I realized – we were blessed he had come to help us… for he found two with the sickness that very day.
The plague was amongst us!
They wallowed in hot liquid,
…sweat like a cloak on them
…and the lumps grew black!
He allowed none in to see, but word spreads fast.
He sealed their houses and we turned our back on them.
Then cousin Imelda fell sick and she were taken to the Church …the doors shut behind her.
And that night they burnt Old Mother Wright’s house
…with her still inside
…banging on the blocked door.
…her screams consumed by roaring of flames.
On the third day the men barricaded all approaches to the village …like they’d done in the old bad days …a-feared of vagrants from the woods.
…none were allowed to come
Again he examined us… separating out kin.
Those he said “Carried the sign!” were put in the Church.
He took into his charge, our two bylaw men and the Steward of the village became his eager assistant, (perhaps the he thought it would save him) …but next day his fat-on-pride and privilege body weighed heavily. I know… I helped carry it’s stinking weight to the church.
The cloaked stranger made rules… “For your protection!”
“All signs of madness – like Old Mother Wright’s doings -to be reported.”
By weeks end, four more had been wrapped in sheets and carried to the Church… and left in cold community on the tiles.
Margaret Pennycroft held that the stranger was a liar, and worse… with red eyes and shaking hands, she screamed her accusations.
On the Seventh day, the Lords day… the stranger had the corpses burnt… (for their sweet smell had settled on the village, clinging to our clothes and driving the flies mad), and atop the pyre he had the bylaw men fling Margaret Pennycroft
“For being like Mother Wright …a whore of the Devil!”
(Though Margaret had done favours for my kin and helped me – when I had the red stinging rash. I turned my back and covered my ears to her screams.)
When, on the 13th day he examined us… only six remained alive.
Still he talked quietly and smiled… but I perceived an eagerness – as he examined each of us.
One, an older man, had the sign and we locked him in the Church.
The rest – all young – were sign free.
We sat by the stranger in the silence of the flies.
…no more died.
…he had saved us.
“It is the lord’s doing”, he told us, and began our teaching.
“Your survival is no mere luck… you have a purpose… A divine purpose as the chosen ones!”
And he taught us, (his eyes shining with holy brightness) the method of examination, as had been taught by his master to him.
And he sent us out across the land…
“To warn”, as he had done.
“To educate”, as he had done.
“To save” as we had been saved.
And now, I will teach you…
‘Reach and clasp the hands of the penitent… for it is only by the contact of skin on skin, of the intermingling our sacred breath… breathing into the faces of the unclean, that we shall find the signs,
…the signs of pestilence!’
That is my tale.
…that is why I am here tonight.
…come, don’t be afright – show me your hands!
Show me your hands my sweet folk!!