Pandemic 1918, from a novel-in-manuscript called Influence
I have a little bird and its name is Enza.
I opened up the window and in-flew-Enza!
Image: skipping rope at an athletics carnival
Pandemic 1918, from a novel-in-manuscript called Influence
The current pandemic has naturally made me think of a novel manuscript I completed recently, Influence, in which twin sisters Flora and Mavis Talley live (and—spoiler alert—fall ill) during the greatest pandemic in modern history to date. When I wrote about the first outbreak, it was fictionalized historical reportage, but now it seems almost prescient. Well, eerie, at least. History repeats. Which is one reason this novel has ghosts.
Flora and Mavis and their younger sister and brother enjoy a well-appointed home on Monument Avenue (a posh address that meant something to denizens of Richmond, Virginia). Both twins are in love with a reporter sent off to the Argonne to work for their father’s paper, The Daily Sun, but he loves only Mavis. What, Flora has wondered, makes a man fall for one girl when her identical is standing right alongside? She’s gifted with a certain “supersentience,” but she can’t understand how she and Mavis seem different to Jack. They are identical down to the curl of their dark hair and the tilt of their heads.
When Spanish Influenza takes over the world, it will be impossible for both twins to survive. But given the family gift for haunting, which began with their Scottish great-aunt Nelly, they won’t stay parted forever.
So here’s about the first phase of the pandemic that began in 1918—with at least four phases to follow. Tensie and Armie are the twins’ younger sister and brother. Winnie is the housekeeper who nurses their very delicate mother, who (like many Southern ladies) is prone to fits of the vapors when things get weird. Facts and theories of the disease are as reported in those early days.
Some of this is from the penultimate draft, edited down for January’s currently “final” version. Back then, the historical facts didn’t seem vital to the story or of significance to readers. I think things are different now … and the novel will probably never see light of day, so I’m airing its microbes here.
Let’s call this bit “Skipping Inside," to keep things light.
Richmond, Virginia, 1918
We woke up one morning in September and Ina Fischer was dead. Daddy told us just after breakfast; Mavis and I sat at the table green-skinned with shock.
“Who’s Ina Fischer?” Tensie asked.
“She is—was—our classmate in high school,” Mavis said. “We saw her last week and she was fine.” Poor, gangly Ina, with her thin red hair and her stubborn determination to flirt: She’d been doing that at Ada Branch’s birthday party, batting myopic eyes at Hubert Pollard.
I wondered aloud. “What do you suppose could have happened to her?”
Daddy cleared his throat. The answer was simple and terrifying.
It had been born in China (so we were told) and would kill more people than the war, though we didn’t know that yet. Influenza. It had been flying around the world for a while and now it had finally come home.
This new disease was worse than a nightmare, because it was a great unknown. We could understand war, to an extent; we knew how people fought. But we could not understand an invisible enemy attacking us here, now, in our flowering youth. Ina Fischer, of all people!
How had it managed to catch her?
Daddy’s reporters would later claim that we had been quietly fighting the ’flu for some months. It had been in the American military-training camps at Christmas 1917, but the military hushed it up, choosing instead to keep morale strong with accounts of carol singing and tree decorating. In spring 1918, it was somehow in Boston, then across the “Pond” in Brest; and then in almost every state and territory of the union and every trench of the battlefields. It had hopped about from camp to camp wherever the war was. In May it caught the King of Spain, and so it was named: Spanish Influenza.
So now it had arrived in nearby Camp Lee and launched like a cannon shot into Richmond. Ina was one of the first to get it. How she’d been infected, no one knew; we didn’t think she was “friendly” with any soldiers. The influenza was that subtle. And discriminating.
For once, infants and the elderly were mostly spared. The influenza stalked young adults in a night-blue cloak and purple fingernails, and it was tricky. It started like any other case of the grippe, with some aching and coughing. Then blood bloomed under skin and the lenses of both eyes; the afflicted one sweated and vomited and coughed, and turned blue around the edges and lost control of the bowels. By the time she got to bed—as we supposed it happened with Ina—she was already drowning in the fluid in her lungs. Some people suffocated and turned dark as night while their families watched.
Out on the median of Monument Avenue, little girls jumped rope to a now grisly rhyme:
Spanish dancers, turn around.
Spanish dancers, touch the ground.
Spanish dancers, do some high kicks—
Spanish dancers, get out of town quick!
But instead of running away, they’d hurl themselves to the ground, to convulse dramatically. Our delicate Mother, watching at the window, inevitably had a fit of the doomful vapors, requiring Winnie’s ministrations.
For perhaps the first time, her alarm was justified.
By the end of September, more than six hundred people in Richmond were abed and three dozen had died. Two weeks later, ten thousand lay sick, with fifteen hundred more deaths expected. The city closed churches and theaters and schools and warehouses, and the state fair was canceled. We were told to stay home; if we simply had to go out, we should wear a mask—with no guarantee that it would save us.
Mother and Daddy told me I couldn’t start college this year, but by then I’d forgotten I’d ever wanted to go. I outlined my own course of study, but I couldn’t concentrate books; I went to the old dollhouse still in my bedroom, and I soothed my nerves with cleaning and oiling and tidying it, making order out of a tiny world.
Outside, the Christian Scientists informed us that our bodies were just an illusion and illness a dream those bodies had. We prayed, of course, like millions of people all over the globe. But no amount of prayer seemed to stop anyone from living this dream.
As more and more bad news rolled in, I wondered again whether Mother had inherited any of her family’s supersentience and a particular knowledge of doom. But it seemed that anytime I approached her I brought on one of those vaporous attacks that, to me at least, indicated she did know something awful was coming, and soon Daddy forbade me even to look at her funny.
My particular gift was useless. The women I knew weren’t circulating enough to fall pregnant, so even if I wanted to, I couldn’t tell them anything about their wombs and their babies-to-be. I didn’t even have any of those premonitions of distant future that sometimes came to me spontaneously. The future was suspended and so was my own supersentience. I just held on to the memory that I’d once predicted I’d have a daughter, which meant that I, at least, was going to survive this—but everyone with a bit of spiritualist ability knows that life can insert itself between a prediction and its outcome, so the influence of the stars and the spirit world is fickle at best.
And life was at its worst.
The city closed churches and theaters and schools and warehouses, and the state fair was canceled. So were weddings and town fairs and other large gatherings. Downtown, John Marshall Public High School was converted into an emergency hospital but couldn’t get enough beds. Indoor auctions of things like tobacco and mules were suspended, which alarmed those who noted that cigarettes were among a soldier’s few comforts (and a farmer’s sole living, and the fortunes of several First Families). The Health Board ordered all working citizens to ask themselves whether their employment was essential to the war effort or to sustaining our American life. If they were not essential, they should stay home.
The same orders were given in every country in the world, it seemed, from Africa to Japan and, most of all, France. The newspapers (we read them without being quizzed by Daddy now) said the ’flu was worse than the Black Plague of the Middle Ages—because it was happening now, here, in the most sophisticated civilization ever, in defiance of civilization itself and even science, which still could not understand how the ’flu had gripped us all.
Now even an “essential” person who ventured outside was expected to wear a mask; anybody without one might be turned away from a place of employment, denied access to trains and trolleys, struck off the list of accounts at any store. Despite the masks, people coughed and turned blue as they walked down the street, then dropped close to dead in their tracks. Bodies piled up at the morgues, and morticians were fearful to touch them. Coffins piled up too, at the train stations, sometimes holding two or three corpses apiece waiting to be shipped to families who might be dead by the time they received their loved ones.
“Are you keeping well?” George (my all-but-forgotten beau) wrote from the front. “We hear it’s worse for you than for us.”
He was being brave. The fighting boys were hardest hit; trenches and field hospitals seemed designed to spread this misery along with so many others. They were veins and arteries drawing a poison directly to the heart and then sending it back worse. Each time the troops moved, another wave of influenza spread across the country.
“Jack!” Mavis sobbed each time we heard of the death of someone we knew, whether from shelling or coughing. She tore at her hair like Ophelia in her mad scene. “Jack!”
“He’ll have enough sense to keep out of it,” Daddy said. But his broad face, too, pinched with worry, and we all breathed a sigh when a new letter or postcard arrived. In fearing we’d lose him, we loved him the more.
Jack’s reports on the war dwelt on muck, not on ’flu: “In the Argonne, all glamor of conquest is pretty well dulled when covered in mud.” This from his telegraphed notes, rewritten by Daddy himself for Daily Sun style.
The Argonne, Jack wrote (or they wrote together, and I pasted into the scrapbook I was now calling the Book of Jack), was the scullery of the Great War, where there was never enough to cook with and the pots were forever crusted; but the belly of Battle had to be fed regularly, and so each morning “John Soldier pulls himself out of the ‘fox-hole’ into which he plastered himself last night, with a noise like yanking a rubber boot out of the mud,” to attend to the routine of cooking amid shells and grenades. And, without metaphor: “Mud affords some protection from the bullets; not much, but some. May it also protect from the Spanish?”
I longed to write him a real letter, to wish him—extravagantly—a better bed than a puddle, a softer lullaby than the sound of gunfire! My heart for his pillow, its beat loud enough to drown out the cannons …
Instead, I wrote stiffly to George: “You are in our thoughts and prayers as we consider all that confronts you and your comrades.”
He wrote back that my love was keeping him alive; and then I was engulfed in feelings of guilt.
Sometimes when I was alone on the stairs, listening to myself breathe, I heard the crackle of taffeta that was said to mean the ghost of our infamous Great-Aunt Nelly was near. She had a particular fondness for haunting staircases and informing family members of their sins and dire fates. But when I turned, I found only my self — reflected in the mirror or in Mavis, who was as ever my constant companion. Trailing behind me because she wanted to talk about Jack. And their future.
“I want a dress from the Soeurs Callot in Paris,” she said, as if the ’flu didn’t exist. “And the wedding will be at Saint John’s, with a reception at the Jefferson. You’ll be maid of honor, of course …”
I listened as if these things were important and not at all painful to me, because we were in the midst of a calamity in which the tiniest thing meant salvation or doom.
“You’ll be a beautiful bride,” I said. Jack’s choice had made her far more beautiful than I ever would be, and the thought made me sick in the pit of my stomach.
“Listen.” Mavis’s head was cocked to one side, weighed down by all that dark hair. “Do you hear something?”
We held our breath.
Outside, rope-skippers jumped to a new chant:
I have a little bird and its name is Enza.
I opened up the window and in-flew-Enza!
Our windows were locked shut, but that didn’t stop the chants from coming through and setting the rhythm of our days. We skipped ourselves, inside, just to keep active.
We tried hard to believe that the body was an illusion and that the end of this dream lay in prayer. We prayed for Jack. We prayed for the soldiers, for George. We prayed, perhaps most of all—because we were young and selfish—for ourselves.
Our world was growing smaller.
Mother had imposed a complete quarantine on us children. She wouldn’t let us so much as crack open a window, much less go outside. Anyone who wished to remain employed in the Talley household must live in and not go home for the nights or Sundays. The staff who remained then doubled up in the attic bedrooms, and Mother told Winnie to lock them in the house if they threatened to go out—then lock them out if they escaped.
We lived like princesses (and one sulky prince) in a bad fairy tale, shut up in a castle with all modern conveniences. We played checkers and chess and Tiddiddily Winks till our eyes saw nothing but red and black and we couldn’t stand the sight of each other.
Tensie took to hiding in corners, swathed in Mother’s shawls, then leaping out at anyone who passed as if she were the ghost of Great-Aunt Nelly. She’d shout, “The end is nigh!” and laugh till she cried at the shrieks of her victims. She got me several times, and Mavis and Armie, and all of the staff. When we grew immune to her surprises, she started crying in her best Nelly-voice, “The end is nigh and yer datter’s a hoor!”
Winnie took Tensie aside. “Now, Miss Tensie, you have no business using that word.”
“What word?” Tensie asked sulkily.
“You know which one. And you should also know, with all your reading and spouting about woman’s rights, that no woman’ll choose to live like that of her own will. So every time you say that word you make light of someone that’s fallen on hard times and’s trying to keep body and soul together for herself and her family. And so you let down all women. I do mean all women, everywhere. Even your mother, even your sisters and you.”
Tensie was stunned. She locked herself into her room for an entire afternoon, and when she returned she was her old pugnacious bluestocking self, only more so: surly and quiet and always with a nose in some book one would have thought too advanced for her age. We were exhausting Daddy’s library, all of us children; new books and magazines were forbidden because they bore the taint of Outside, so we immersed ourselves in Shakespeare and all twelve volumes of Bulwer-Lytton.
I invited Mavis and Tensie and even Armie to work on restoring our old dollhouse with me. Armie naturally refused, and Mavis said she didn’t have time, what with writing to Jack and fretting about him and learning how to cook with what little Mother allowed into the house, for she was going to make a home for Jack someday.
Tensie had never cared about the dollhouse as a child, and now, with an air of quoting (though I did not ask for the source), she called the dear plaything “a machine designed to train little girls to be bound to their homes and a relentless tool of the patriarchy.” She borrowed Thus Spake Zarathustra and I’m sure she gleaned more from its pages than I ever did. She spoke at the supper table about Kaiser Bill and mankind’s innate “will to power,” as well as “the eternal return” of something I never fully understood. She didn’t mention whores again.
When Tensie talked about Nietzsche and the war, we waited for Mother’s vapors. They didn’t come. We thought Mother understood even less about philosophy than we did, or else that she’d stopped listening.
Shut up as we were, we knew there was no space so well sealed as to keep these germs out. Even in utero, no one was safe: Babies being born to mothers exposed (whether the mothers showed symptoms or not) were noticeably slower than other babies. Their eyes failed to focus; their lips didn’t smile. They walked late and spoke later, and their mothers despaired of training them to toilets.
After I heard about the babies, each time the phone rang, my heart lurched. There was always a chance that Aunt Bertie would be on the other end, announcing tragically that the daughter I’d predicted for her—a pink sugarplum born in February and called Flopsy, for she’d made her parents’ hearts flop from the first—was impaired. Or else asking me whether I’d had a feeling about something amiss in her womb or not, and whether I’d tell her now.
I assured her I hadn’t felt anything wrong, and it was the truth. But I couldn’t blame Bertie for worrying; I wouldn’t have believed me either.
By October, every page of the Sun was peppered with notices of prominent deaths, and influenza was responsible for far more of them than war. Boys died by dozens each week at Camp Lee, without ever going to war. If someone from a little place like Shamblytown got sick, that person most likely died, because the hospitals were miles away and no doctors could be spared for the indigents’ house calls. Even out in Bon Air, where Aunt Bertie’s family had their log cabin, a person might die before a doctor could reach her. For that reason alone, Mother insisted we stay put right there on Monument Avenue—if we were to die, at least someone with a medical degree should bear witness. If such a perosn could still be found.
The first “phase” of the disease, as it came to be known—because a phase had to end, didn’t it?—had felled many doctors, and there weren’t enough left to treat all the sick. Right home in Richmond, twenty physicians were in bed with the Spanish and the head of our Health Board left town to tend his own brother’s case. John Marshall High, still a hospital, was crippled by a lack of orderlies. The doctor in charge put out a call that Daddy printed the Sun’s first page: “We should be glad to have colored men and women apply for work in all wards. Wages will be paid.”
This meant that the old dark-light sorting problem that had preoccupied Virginia since there was a Virginia had now been suspended. Our butler, Washington, went and was assigned to a white ward, and so were Winnie’s daughters Cissie and Viley. But more and more help was needed, and more beds. Soon enough, two more schools had to be set up and staffed as hospitals, and a national campaign was declaring that The best-dressed woman in America is a nurse.
“The governor’s wife is a volunteer nurse,” Tensie mentioned pointedly.
Mother had such a fit at the mere idea that she took to her bed for two days. But she didn’t fall ill. Meantime, more than once, Winnie was discovered hiding in some corner, curled up with worry and sobbing. It was the first time I’d ever seen her distraught.
Of course, Daddy still went to work (The Daily Sun was too important to let him stay home), but Mother made him disinfect himself even more thoroughly than Winnie did. He had to use the servants’ entrance when he returned, strip all his clothes, take a sponge bath with Lysol, and put on fresh things left out by the temporary butler. Even then, Mother wouldn’t let him come near us for hours.
He honored the demand with the same genial indulgence with which he regarded her attacks of the vapors.
“Your mother grew up while her father was dying,” he said when the four of us cornered him to beg for our freedom. “She comes honestly by her fear of disease. And in this case she’s showing good sense. She loves you children—we both do. You are our greatest treasures.”
When he said all that, he tied up our tongues. It was unusual in our set for fathers to talk about love, and Daddy was even more reticent than most. The idea that we were precious was a revelation indeed.
“But, Daddy,” Mavis wheedled, “the letters!”
Mail was almost the last bit of Outside left to us, and it, too, had been forbidden. Or at least delayed, because eventually Mother had to admit that correspondence was a comfort and therefore a necessary evil. After a bout with the vapors that lasted three days, she decided she could allow us to have some letters, carefully selected by Winnie from the shrinking pile no longer delivered through our mail spot but collected by Daddy from a box on the porch. Now our letters came in through the back door and underwent a process of sterilization: a slow bake in a warm oven, then (in the case of overseas envelopes especially) a day’s storage in a radium-infused casserole to eradicate the last of the microbes. The pages came out light brown and fragile, crumbling between the fingers of anyone lucky enough to have got word from Outside, as we’d started to call it.
In the end, Mavis resigned herself to reading Jack’s letters a day after they came. She was happy to have anything at all (and I envied that happiness). If the post was delayed a day or two, the entire household felt it—Mavis dissolved in tears, certain Jack had died. I cried too, but in private. Then when the letters arrived again, sometimes four at a time, we all breathed deep with relief. Even the bricks and mortar seemed to expand and to lighten a moment before settling down to the usual constriction.
No one monitored George’s correspondence so closely, and though I might easily have taken offense at the family’s neglect of my supposed affair of the heart, I was greatly relieved. It was a blessing not to be asked about him, and not to feel pressured to open the yellow-blue envelopes piling up in a desk drawer; for although I cared about George (vaguely, half-forgotten) as a friend, I couldn’t bear to read any outpourings of love from him. I wrote back without reading what he’d wanted me to, and his letters sifted themselves into dust in one drawer of the desk that I hardly used anymore, now that schooling was finished for me.
Sometimes, some nights, I slid into Mavis’s bed and put my arms around her and we fell asleep just as we’d done in our childhood, with our hair tangling across the pillow and our ribs rising and falling in tandem. There was no ghost then, no Jack, only us.
But that was the nighttime, and we had long days in between, avoiding the grip of la grippe.
The telephone was our final contact with Outside. I rang up my friends when I could. We all longed to talk about Ina, and our sweethearts, and friends and relatives and also anything that wasn’t the Spanish Influenza. By now they were all quarantined too, but no one so strictly as the Talley children.
Mother was even suspicious of the telephone. She came running when anyone used it, as if microbes could travel through electrical wires.
“Enough, now, enough,” she would say, pressing her finger on the lever to disconnect. Then my confidences and frustrations were cut off without warning, usually in the middle of the other girl’s sentence.
I envied the children (fewer now) who were still chanting their rhyme as the leaves ripened and fell, though of course the chant itself was irritating.
I have a little bird and its name is Enza …
Sometimes, when no one was looking, I picked up the telephone’s ear piece just to listen to the electric crackle before the operator came on and asked me for a number. That hum reminded me that a larger world wasn’t so far out of reach, and it might be still be waiting for us when all this was over.
… and in-flew—