Eternal Bond By Rachel Rueben
Faithfully they emerged from the shadows like spirits conjured by a sorcerer’s spell. Fighting against the elements, they came by foot, cart and even horseback to attend this most unusual service. Nervously, they sat in the pews hooded and damp waiting for the ceremony to begin.
Lightning flashed and the winds howled as nature railed against the church walls. Inside the chapel, the drafty windows barely protected those within. As the shutters bashed against the wooden frames, they seemed destined to come unhinged with each blast of wind.
Suddenly an old man appeared dressed in scarlet robes and a fine linen tunic. As he marched towards the altar, those in attendance stood in attention.
Wasting no time, the old man got to the pulpit and announced, “Most exalted ones, the day is finally upon us. The day which our souls hath yearned for, and the one which our flesh abhors. My children, the end of all things draweth nigh!”
Those in the pews gasped and looked at each other in disbelief. None of them ever dreamt they would hear those words uttered during their life time.
In dramatic fashion, the high priest rose his hands and let them fall down with a loud bang upon the wooden pulpit.
“The first horror is over, but the second is upon us!” he said, his silver hair glowing in the candlelight.
Continuing the spiritual caveat, he presented cases of plagues, wars and even celestial chaos to prove they were not living in ordinary times. Cross referencing recent events with their most sacred texts, he combated any and all unbelief in the room.
Staring into their souls with his fiery jade eyes he went on, “The battle ahead is great, and our numbers— few.” Pointing his boney finger at them he said, “Behold, many shall proclaim to knoweth the secrets of our circle but deny the power therein. And many within the fold shall be found unworthy. On that day, ye must not be found unworthy!”
It was a threat to those in the pews as well as a warning.
Grabbing a sword that was laying upon the altar, he pointed it at them and said, “Trust no one, not even ye own kinsmen!” Just then a flash of lightening illuminated the entire room giving it a most unearthly glow.
With that, he concluded his sermon. Those left in the pews were dropped back into reality swooning. With the ceremony concluded, everyone quietly filed out of the chapel and slipped back into obscurity, to await their appointed hour.
Meanwhile, less than a mile outside of Norwich, lived a girl named Elizabeth Rothchild. She was 17 years old and on her way to a convent in Derby. That was if she could only convince her parents it was God’s will. Ever since she was small, she wanted nothing more than to commit her life to the work of God. Her eldest brother Richard, laughed at her silly schemes and couldn’t see why she behaved so childishly.
“Either way, it’s labor for the convent, or for thy husband.” He said, not seeing any silver lining in the matter.
Elizabeth was not the least bit deterred however, not even when her father brought an eligible bachelor home named Lester. The young accountant from Norwich caught his eye when registering for the royal census.
Lester was connected, and it was only matter of time before he became wealthy. Sensing this, every young woman in town blatantly tried to attract his attention, but he had eyes only for Elizabeth. It was a mystery to everyone especially his friends, who couldn’t figure out why he preferred this thin red headed girl. She was average looking at best, and wasn’t even nice to him. Nonetheless, Lester finagled his way into her family’s good graces and before long, he was making frequent visits to her home. Even though, Elizabeth despised the very idea of marriage, she made nice, so as not to anger her father.
By the looks of it, Elizabeth’s father seemed to adore Lester more than any of the girls in town. In utter disgust she watched as her father laughed and carried on with her betrothed. They shared the same hatred for the king’s new property tax and loathed the town’s French Bishop whom her father swore was a spy.
“With all these miserable wars, won’t be long before we’re all speaking French.” Her father said holding his ale.
“Our king isn’t as strong as his father.” Lester agreed. “The boy is only interested in recapturing the titles of his mother’s ancestors, his heart is not with England.”
As Elizabeth sat quietly in the background, she was nearly brought to vomiting. Seeing her father breaking bread with this bull’s pizzle1 made her angry. What was the big deal about him? She just couldn’t understand it.
Right in the middle of her thought, her mother tapped her shoulder and pointed towards the opened door. Outside the threshold were several young girls peeking inside and giggling.
“Out you silly hens!” Her mother said shooing them away.
It wasn’t uncommon for young girls of Norwich to take to the street, to catch a glimpse of the wind running through Lester’s wavy black hair and why not? A Lester sighting was like a cool sip of water on a hot summer’s day and the townswomen sipped frequently.
Finally, the dreaded day came when Lester formally asked for her hand. Without hesitation, her father accepted, embracing Lester. Elizabeth’s mother nearly leapt out of her chair with a huge smile on her face.
Hugging her daughter, she wept saying, “May the Lord, bless thee with a happy home like ours.”
Knowing time was of the essence, Elizabeth’s parents began setting the wheels in motion for a summer wedding. When she protested, they reminded her it was her duty to her family’s posterity that this marriage take place.
Unfortunately for them, Elizabeth had no intention on marrying Lester, let alone fulfilling any obligation to her family’s posterity. Elizabeth was also setting the wheels in motion for her big escape out of this mess. She had a little money saved and was making plans to run away. Knowing her cousin Rebecca would be visiting soon, Elizabeth figured she could sneak away with her.
Unfortunately Rebecca, had no idea about Elizabeth’s plan. When she arrived, Elizabeth was extra nice to her and even shared her beloved leather shoes with her. Elizabeth idolized Rebecca, and enjoyed her visits. Though she was her age, she was more much more well traveled and educated than her. Since Elizabeth had never ventured outside of the county, the stories Rebecca told held her attention during many a dull evening.
Rebecca was a magnificent storyteller, captivating her audience with reenactments of her adventures. Dancing around the room she recalled the pomp and pageantry of Lord Guildford’s winter banquet. It had everyone in stitches when she knocked down a candle and nearly set herself on fire.
However, not everyone was amused, Elizabeth’s father thought Rebecca was just a silly spinster. Behind her back, he would talk about how shameful it was that she ran her family’s estate while her brother drank himself into a stupor.
“Tis unnatural, women have no mind for business.” He would say.
What they didn’t understand was Rebecca was just trying to keep a roof over her head, not defy tradition. If it wasn’t for her, the family estate would be in shambles. These visits she made to their house were just a stopover on her way to the family vineyards.
Just one year ago, the great pestilence struck her town taking both her little sister, and her mother. In fear, her father sent the remainder of the family away when he too fell victim. Rebecca’s brother tried to run the estates, after his death but slipped into hopelessness and depravity. Now he spent most of his time and money on drink and prostitutes.
Though, Elizabeth felt sorry for Rebecca, she envied her position in society. With her brother incapacitated, Rebecca was accountable to no one. But what Elizabeth didn’t understand was that Rebecca didn’t visit them on her way to the vineyards. In fact, Norwich was far from her destination. She came to her uncle’s house to escape the harsh realities of her new and harsh adult life. At her uncle’s house, Rebecca had chores like the other children, and was even required to attend mass every evening. In return, there was peace, and order which was more than she could ever hope for at her home.
Sadly, that peace and order would soon become fleeting in the Rothchild home. For in the month of May, life as they knew it, ceased.
It began with nagging coughs, and fevers. Then next phase would set in, headaches, sores, and the coughing up blood. Within a week, those infected were dead. Everyone knew what it was, but dared not say a word. Believing a bad confession was a gateway for the devil, they remained terrified into silence.
Despite their confessions, or lack thereof, the body count continued to rise. As it swept through Norwich, fear immediately gripped the hearts of the townspeople. As things continued to get worse, the finger pointing began.
Those who were pious naturally assumed sin was at the root. So in a desperate attempt to restore God’s favor, the church declared a day of fasting and prayer. That day soon came and went, but absolutely nothing changed.
This stirred the church to launch an investigation. Everything and everyone was examined. The clergy even began monitoring new births in town. Midwives were to report anything unnatural about a child. Extra fingers, deafness, or any feeble mindedness could be signs of demonic forces at work.
No matter what the cause, it was indiscriminate, both saint and sinner ended up sharing the same grave pits. All day, every day, people were dying.
At dusk, a wagon would come by to whisk the dead off to their new abode. The collectors would yell, “Bring out yer dead!” Then one by one, people would slowly emerge from their homes dragging out their loved ones. Stacking them neatly on top of the other corpses they watched quietly as the wagon pulled off for the next town.
As the stench of death perfumed the air, those who were once upright, became so despondent that they fell into immorality. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a once pious person utter the phrase, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die!”
Sinners however went to the other extreme and began flagellating themselves in public to atone for their transgressions against God. The hysteria, guilt, and confusion forced people to reach for any and all possible solutions.
Being an opportunist, Elizabeth decided to take up nursing duties at the church’s infirmary. She was immediately taken under the wing of a young, twenty year old mother superior who took a likening to her. Mother Margery was thrust into her post when her sixty year old predecessor succumb to the plague. Overwhelmed, Mother Margery was dying for a conversation that had to nothing to do with church, or death which Elizabeth happily supplied.
Soon, life at church crushed any fantasies Elizabeth had about a quiet life of contemplative prayer. She learned that a life committed to God was filled with sacrifice and difficulties. One had no say in where they were stationed, or what your duties to the church would even be. It was a revelation that had Elizabeth reconsidering her calling.
In the meanwhile, Rebecca became indignant about all the time Elizabeth was spending with her new friend. Condescendingly, she would say,
“Tis foolhardy to spend so much time at that nunnery. The only women there are lunatics, outcasts, and feeble widows!”
Elizabeth, knowing her mother was nearby, seized the moment and piously replied,
“Our Lord himself said, [Matthew 19 verses 10-12] ‘There are many reasons men cannot marry: some because they were born that way; others, because men made them that way; and others do not marry for the Kingdom of heaven. Let those who can accept this teaching do so.’”
Looking out the corner of her eye, she wanted to see if anyone caught wind of her performance.
Instead of applause, her mother rebuked them both for inviting discourse into the house.
“Stop yer blathering, it invites the wrath of hell on us all!”
It was not the review Elizabeth was hoping for.
This went on for almost the entire summer until, one day Elizabeth came down with a fever and chills. Her mother was the first to let out a mournful groan. Her father became silent, and spent a lot of time out of the house, tending to one chore, or another.
Rebecca was no help either, whenever Elizabeth would try to convey her last wishes, she’d snapped, “Don’t give me any of that dying foolishness!”
The only one she could depend on was her brother Richard, who hardly ever left her side. She began instructing her brother to take care of the family after she was gone, telling him, “Thou shall be man of the house one day, so walk the narrow path. And pray for my soul, thou cannot trust a priest to be about the Lord’s work these days!”
Elizabeth then told him her favorite Psalm that was to be read at her mass, because she knew she wasn’t going into the grave pits. Her parents simply wouldn’t allow it. They would give her a Christian burial even, if they had to conduct it themselves.
When news spread that Elizabeth was stricken, the town elders came to visit their home. After giving their condolences, they painted a red cross on the front door to warn others of the illness within.
When Lester heard the news, he braved the danger to be at Elizabeth’s side. Holding her pale, thin hand he said, “Thou mustn’t fear, all will be well.” But Elizabeth was no fool, she knew she was dying. Even though she was woman of faith, Elizabeth understood there would be no miracles here.
Feeling the disease progress day by day, as it took away her life’s essence all she could do was wait for death. Meanwhile her family had to watch as the illness left nothing but a frail, ashen figure in the bed.
When the final phase set in and the purple blotches began to form, Elizabeth began having trouble breathing. All day long, the only sound that could be heard in the house was silence and weak gurgling as Elizabeth drowned in her own blood. The only mercy the illness bestowed upon its victims was its speed, because within four days, a priest was called.
The priest, or rather, the man impersonating one, arrived armed with his anointing oil and wooden crucifix. Since there was no available clergy to administer last rights, common lay folk heard confessions and gave last rights.
Elizabeth strained to offer up her last confession and receive benediction. When she kissed the crucifix, she rested her head on the pillow and closed her brown eyes, safe in the knowledge, she was ready to leave this Earth.
In less than twenty four hours, she was comatose. That’s when her mother began openly weeping. Fortunately, Rebecca was there to lend a shoulder to cry on and even began taking up her aunt’s chores while she held vigil at her daughter’s bedside.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s father and Lester began the dreadful task of digging a grave. Choosing the only spot left near the edge of the cemetery, they began toiling in absolute silence. Before they returned home, dirty and sweaty they received the news, Elizabeth was gone. Without any prompting, Lester went to find the priest, but before he did that, he had business to take care of.