The Sickest Time – Chapter One
Benoit du Villearrièr had been forced to lie about the existence of his hangover that morning, and furthermore, forced out of the house to go to market. Madame du Villearrièr was heavily pregnant with their first child after all, and would not take ‘non’ for an answer— nor would her cravings.
Benoit repeated the name of the fruit she had called out so desperately that morning through his splitting headache. Cerise, cerise, he said to himself, shuffling over the ill-maintained cobbles. Ahead, a chamber pot was being emptied into the road from the first floor, splashing and coating the ground with mess. Benoit almost made a mess himself in the road from the smell but managed to pass by with only a few distant drops from the cascade making contact with his body. If he could only reach the market square, he could purchase himself a waffle or a crepe to full his lonely stomach and perhaps avoid digging into the promised cerise that were supposed to make it home.
The unavoidable bustle of the market square was just bearable on a good day, but the combination of Benoit’s unsettled entrails and head, as well as the incessant words of the crier, offered an attack to nearly all of his senses. And what a tale the crier was speaking of, atop his wooden crate, gathering a crowd enough to block that corner of the street.
“Hear ye, hear ye— be warned of the sickness overtaking the land! The sailors and traders and merchants bring word from the east! Is is a fowl sickness in the air, filling men’s bodies with pestilence, bringing forth bubbles that raise the skin and ooze puss, an overwhelming fatigue that empties bodies in all ways imaginable!”
It was, indeed, Benoit’s imagination of such symptoms that caused his stomach to finally empty itself on the curb at the far end of the crowd while attempting to round the puzzled and somehow still concerned mob. He felt a hand at his back, one belonging to a not-too-distance neighbor, Michel, and his wife Isabella. “Dieu, you look just awful,” the husband announced, pulling Benoit away from the half-digested puddle of his own making.
Benoit huffed and snorted and wiped his mouth with his sleeve and rested his hands on his knees. “Oh no, not as awful as I might be if I don’t return promptly with.. what was it… apples? Pears? No, no—“
The wife of the neighbor hung to her basket of things purchased and leaned into her husband. “The sickness, cherie. Do you think…?”
Michel pulled on Benoit’s arm, straightening his back up. “Non, those are silly words. One more little sickness floating about the air? I have gotten sick tens, dozens of times. My dear, how many times can you remember me loudly emptying both my stomach and my bowels simultaneously out into the streets? And I am strong still despite those bouts.”
The wife crossed her arms. “But what of little Colline, succumbed to a little rash within a month of being born?”
“Eh?” Michel scratched his head. “The second child? I didn’t realize she was even offered a name by that time. But, er, Benoit here is just hungover, anyway. You escaped to the tavern to give the wife some air last night, did you? My good man, let’s get a mug into you for some mal par le mal, a good hair of the dog for you. Missus, do you mind heading on home by yourself?”
The wife sighed and shrugged but complied, shaking her head the whole way.
Still holding onto Benoit’s arm, Michel forced the two of them through the backside of the crowd and forward to the relatively more tranquil square, absent of troubling news. Benoit regained his balance and wiped his brow down of the sweat that hadn’t been there before. “What sort of speak was that? What that loud-mouth was preaching.”
“I’d say it’s better than the usual decrees they try and force upon us,” the neighbor clicked his tongue. “What was it that you dragged your out here for? In such a condition?”
Benoit scanned the merchant’s stalls, nearly cleared out by the early morning shoppers who weren’t burning off ethanol from hours before. “Indeed, what was it? Fruit? The wife has no mind but for her cravings. Last week it was salted and brined cornichon. Eugh. This week, sweets. Ah, cerise,” his mind reconciled after glancing the neat stems and shiny red skin of the petite stone fruits.
Michel shrugged as they made their way for the stall. “The crier gets his keep saying such nasty words for whatever sake the governor wants. Before you came by, there were telling people to stay in their homes, to distance from each other. Who has time for that, when people want to work, get their hairs cut, or drink in the bars? Maybe they want the streets clear for some sort of parade… is some dignitary visiting? One of those elite fools getting married off, and they want to be able to hear the church bells instead of us people walking around in our own streets?”
Benoit paid more attention to the individual fruits from there on out, finally pointing at the least desiccated bundles of cerise. “How much for a handful?”
“Five francs,” the stall-keeper bargained.
“Eugh,” Benoit passed the hard-earned money and took up the fruit, but Michel snatched up one to examine it before they could be pocketed. “The man was saying that the sickness comes from the east. I think that’s also where these fruits come from, non? Italie?”
Benoit shrugged. “I do believe that those old Romans cultivated these wild cherry types, but current refrigeration and transportation technologies would make it impossible to get individual fruits so far away from their source. These fruit come from trees that were brought over here countless years ago, likely right in this man’s backyard.”
“We’re supporting the local economy, Michel.”
“Hell, do we have any other choice?” he huffed, tossing the ceries back into his neighbor’s hands. “Hey, after you feed the wife, do you want to stop by? We can invite Mattieu, he was a boating man back in the day. We can ask him about what he thinks about this whole ‘sickness’ situation.”
“Sure, if I have the chance. But you never know what the woman’s pregnancy brain will want next.”