Authors: Eric Walters
The True Story of Santa Claus
I’ve Got an Idea
Death by Exposure
The Bully Boys
Tiger in Trouble
The Hydrofoil Mystery
Full Court Press
The Money Pit Mystery
Three on Three
Tiger by the Tail
War of the Eagles
Trapped in Ice
Diamonds in the Rough
Stand Your Ground
For those who perished, and those who went on
“Okay, everybody, let’s settle down and get to work!” Mrs. Phelps, my history teacher, yelled out over the din of the class.
Slowly, reluctantly, people ended their conversations and shuffled to their seats. Monday morning at 8:30 was not a great time to do anything except sleep. Up until last week, that’s what I
doing at this time. I still couldn’t believe how fast the summer holidays had gone by.
While there were no assigned seats I slipped into my usual spot, like everybody else. It was amazing how quickly—within a few days—everybody had fallen into predictable patterns. Not that
I was complaining, because I had a good seat—not by the front, but not in the very back row, either. Teachers always kept a close eye on anybody who sat in the last row. On my left-hand side was my best friend, James. Beside him, clearly visible as I innocently looked in his direction to talk, was a girl who had lots of cleavage, wore little tiny tops and had a tendency to bend over a lot to get things out of the pack underneath her desk. Actually, this was a
“You’ll have to excuse me if I still don’t know all of your names,” Mrs. Phelps said.
I figured her not knowing mine was still a plus.
“I have four grade nine history classes this semester, so that’s over one hundred students who are new to the school and new to me.”
I didn’t know Mrs. Phelps very well yet, but I liked her. She was interested in her students, but not too interested. And she seemed to take her job seriously, but not too seriously. She wore a wedding ring, and there were pictures of a couple of kids on her desk. That meant she had a life beyond history. Teachers who lived for their subject could really make their students’ lives miserable.
This school was so much bigger than my old school. It was hard to go from being the big guys in grade eight to being the little kids in grade nine. High school was like a whole different world—a world inhabited by thousands and thousands of kids I didn’t know, all of whom seemed a whole
lot bigger than me. Thank goodness almost all of my class from the old school had made the transfer, so I knew lots of people already. Actually, people like James I’d known since
. Good old James. I looked over and past him to that girl … wow … maybe there was nothing wrong with getting to know new people, either.
“I’m going to recite a line of poetry and I want you all to say the next line.”
There was an audible grumbling and I turned to James to ask if I’d missed a poem in the assigned reading. Suddenly my attention was caught as that girl slowly reached underneath the desk for her history textbook. My mouth dropped open and I tried not to stare … I wondered if she was doing that by accident or if it was a very deliberate thing meant to drive boys—to drive
“Ring around the rosie!”
Mrs. Phelps sang out.
pocket full of posies,”
most of us chanted back after a slight hesitation.
“We all fall down,”
we all said, finishing the rhyme.
“Excellent! So you all know that poem.”
“Poem? Isn’t that like a nursery rhyme?” somebody asked.
“Rhyme, as in poem,” Mrs. Phelps replied. “Since this is a history class, can anybody tell me the
of this verse?”
“I think my mother taught it to me, so it must be pretty old,” a girl said.
I realized that with the exception of a few kids in the class it wasn’t just Mrs. Phelps who didn’t know people’s names.
very old. Even older than your mother or grandmother, or great-grandmother,” Mrs. Phelps said.
“And it’s English, right?” a second girl said—or really asked.
“Old English. Very old. This poem is believed to be somewhere between six and seven hundred years old.”
That surprised me, and judging from the looks and murmurs from the rest of the class I wasn’t alone.
“Does anybody know what this verse means?”
“It’s something kids say when they play games or skip,” the first girl replied.
“Yeah, they played a lot of games back then because they didn’t have TV or radios or even video games,” a guy added. “All they had was, like, rocks … I think that’s why they called it the Stone Age.”
“Actually, the time frame when that verse was written is most commonly called the Dark Ages, but you’re correct, they didn’t have anything that we would consider modern,” Mrs. Phelps said.
I was impressed by how gently she’d said that, instead of just telling him that he was stupid.
“And the rhyme became popular because of the absence of some other modern amenities … primarily health care, medicine and proper sanitation. Many people believe that the poem that you all knew and recited is about the bubonic plague, about the Black Death.”
James leaned over and gave me a little nudge. “Black Death … how about that for a name for the group?” he whispered.
I shook my head. We weren’t black, and I was seriously hoping that nobody would die. James played guitar and I played bass and saxophone. We’d been jamming with a couple of other guys in James’s garage, and we were trying to come up with a name for our band.
“I’ll translate the poem for you,” Mrs. Phelps said. “The first line,
Ring around the rosie
, refers to the rose-colored discoloration of the skin and flesh caused by the plague. The skin turns purple and then black, most often in the extremities … fingers, toes and, in males, the genitalia.”
I felt a shudder go up my spine as an audible groan came from the males in the room. Somehow that last part seemed a lot worse than your fingers and toes changing color.
pocket full of posies,”
Mrs. Phelps continued. “This refers to the sweet-smelling flowers that those who were tending to the sick would carry to help ward off the stench of the disease and deaths.”
“I read somewhere that was why brides originally started to carry flowers at weddings, to cover up how they smelled, because nobody ever took baths in the olden days,” a girl said.
“Fresh water, especially heated fresh water, was certainly uncommon, especially in the cities during the Dark Ages. But the smell from the plague would be much worse than that caused by simply not washing. Imagine the stench caused by rotting meat, human body parts that were dying while the patient remained alive.”
I tried hard
to imagine that but wasn’t successful.
, is about the impending death,” Mrs. Phelps said. “Although there is an alternative line:
. This signifies the sneezing and coughing of the pneumonic form of the plague, the type that is in the lungs. And the final line,
We all fall down
, simply refers to death.” She paused and took a sip from her coffee mug.
“Although there is still some debate among historians, it is believed that while there have been countless epidemics, there have been only three major pandemics. In a pandemic, a disease affects not just a local area but a broad geographic region—maybe a whole continent. The first pandemic spread from the Middle East to the Mediterranean Basin in the fifth and sixth centuries and killed half the population of the
affected areas. Think about that number. Now, look around the room.”
I looked over at James and, of course, past him. I had to try to talk to her and try to remember to keep my eyes meeting her eyes and no place else. That wouldn’t be easy.
“I want everybody born in January through June to stand up,” Mrs. Phelps said.
I was born in March and got to my feet. James was a July baby and stayed seated. The girl—I
to find out her name—rose as well. What if we shared a birth month? Maybe that would give me an excuse to talk to her.
“About half of you are on your feet. All of those standing would be dead.”
“If you’re dead, can I have your iPod?” James asked.
“If I’m dead I can’t say yes.”
“If you’re dead you can’t say no,” James said, and a bunch of people laughed.
“Everybody take your seats again. The second pandemic occurred between the eighth and fourteenth centuries and affected almost all of Europe, resulting in a 40 percent mortality rate. Finally, the last pandemic was in 1855, starting in China and spreading to all the continents except Australia and Antarctica.”
“You mean there was a plague in the United States?” a girl asked.
“All continents. It was finally halted by the
development of an antiserum which combated the bacillus responsible for the disease.”
“I remember reading that the plague was caused by rat bites,” a boy said.
“By rats and by bites, but not by rat bites,” Mrs. Phelps explained. “Rats carry fleas and the fleas are the carriers of the bacillus. It is spread by the bite of the flea.”
“Thank goodness we don’t have rats running around any more,” a girl said.
“That’s a joke,” James said. “My father’s a fireman in New York City and he told me they figure there are more rats in New York than there are people.”
“But we don’t have the plague any more … right?” a girl asked.
“We don’t have epidemics, but there are still over two thousand cases of the plague reported worldwide each year,” Mrs. Phelps said.
“In some places in the world it still isn’t much different from the Dark Ages,” a boy said.
“You’re right. For example, in some places they still practice agriculture in ways more connected to the sixteenth century than to modern western civilizations,” Mrs. Phelps agreed. “But in spite of our up-to-date technology, there are still, right here in the United States, on average, twenty cases of the plague each year.”
“And people die?” that same girl asked, sounding anxious.
“Very rarely. The mortality rate, if treatment is received quickly, is less than 1 percent,” Mrs. Phelps said.
The girl looked relieved. Did she really think she was going to get the plague?
“Many diseases, such as smallpox, which caused great hardship around the world, have been eliminated completely,” Mrs. Phelps continued. “The only smallpox virus in the world is kept in a few special, secure laboratories as a scientific curiosity.”
“Will that happen to the plague some day?” James asked.
Mrs. Phelps shook her head. “Unlikely. There are literally millions of animals and billions of fleas on those animals that carry the plague bacillus.”
That didn’t sound so encouraging—especially if you thought about all those rats that were in New York.
“Plague bacillus is a natural occurrence, not unlike a hurricane or tornado or earthquake. We can’t stop those, either.”
“But even hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes are different for us, here in the States, than in some other places,” James said.
“I’m not sure if I can agree with that. The midwest of our country is a hotbed for tornadoes, Florida and the Gulf Coast are often on hurricane alert, and the whole of California sits on the San
Andreas Fault and has experienced numerous earthquakes and—”
“I don’t mean we don’t
natural disasters,” James said. “What I mean is that even though we have those we don’t suffer the same way. I watch the news and hear about earthquakes happening in places like China and they have twenty thousand deaths, and when we have one in California there’s only twenty people killed, maybe less.”