The Plague Doctors

by Stephen Cole

They know diseases spread through the air, and so they guard their breath with saffron and peppermint. Birds are ill-omened and born under a plague star, and so they ape their beaks, their shadowed wings against the sky. Evil cannot survive a red light, and so their eyes, red for health, red for protection.

They reek of their trade, of wax and lymph and decay.

How poorly armed they are, these doctors of words! In their ancient texts they riddle for answers, but Galen is silent, and Averroes. Half the sovereigns they list in their pharmacopoeia are names, no more: a rare herb indeed is moly! So, girt with rose petals and leather, armed with wooden canes and urine flasks, they sally forth into the house of Nergal; beneath that darkling roof they come upon Ereshkigal, wracked in birth, gravid with the waters of the earth.

No songs are sung of their deeds, nor tales told.