The first signs were coughing. Next came sickness, and then some of the elders began to die. And the villagers were very sad because the people of Albion were a loving people who cared deeply about their elders.
Some of the prophet leaders said that people should not meet together in the village taverns or bakeries or even in the synagogues or churches. But other prophets disagreed and said that people should still hold their child’s hand and take them to sit under the tree for the afternoon story with the teacher, and they should visit the elders in the gardens by the river where they grew flowers that were sold at market to help pay the taxes for the Pharaoh.
And because the prophets disagreed, the lawyers got involved, and everybody argued.
And so the people in the village became angry. Angry at the prophets who gave confusing prophecies and who did not speak with one voice. Angry at the Pharaoh collecting his taxes. Angry at the teacher who carried on reading under the tree as if nothing was happening. And angry at themselves because they were afraid and did not know the right thing to do.
Some people were afraid that they would catch the plague so they started to avoid each other. Some were afraid that the Pharaoh would punish them if they were not working in the garden picking flowers to pay the taxes, and so they went to work. But they eyed each other suspiciously in the gardens and made sure to leave two rows between them and the next picker.
And so the whispering desert wind blew across the land, silently at first and then stronger and stronger until people were afraid that it would blow the plague right into their own houses. So they shut the doors very tight and peered through the cracks to see what was happening outside.
And then the prophets told all the people who were coughing that they would be locked up in their homes. And so the coughers were seen no more. And slowly, the daily visits to the bakery ended, no one visited the old lady at the top of the street and the flowers in the gardens by the river went unpicked.
Young men held their hands by their sides awkwardly at the tavern. The elders in the coffee house bobbed side to side instead of double-kissing, and the clapping games of the girls grew silent.
And then the Pharaoh caught the coughing sickness.
And the villagers held on tight to their baskets of bread, their buckets of milk, the fish from the river and their handful of coins from the market that week. They locked themselves away and hardly ever came out.
And then the prophets said that the children were not allowed to visit their grandmothers and grandfathers. The elders were lonely, and the little children were sad because they didn’t understand and they felt poisonous. And the elders were sad because they yearned to be part of things, instead of shut away. And very soon it wasn’t just the coughers who didn’t come out. It was everyone.
And so the sounds of the village became soft and even the lowing of the cows was muffled and sleepy. The clamour of children and the babble of the elders and the happy eruption of the night music from the tavern all disappeared and so the village became silent.
It was like the world had paused, waiting to see what would happen next. It was as though the village had died.
And all this time the teacher had been sitting underneath in the shade of the tree reading a story to herself. And slowly, because they were tired of waiting, and because their parents were exhausted, some of the smallest children crept out of the houses and nervously sat under the tree to listen.
At first there were only two or three but, because the teacher read so well and felt the words so deeply and wanted to share them, soon there were hundreds of children sitting in the shade underneath the gently spreading branches of the tree.
And then one morning, one of the houses of the coughers opened up and a small girl with a purple dress stepped outside. Curtains and drapes and blinds blinked and the villagers gasped as they peered outside and watched her walk the whole length up the hill. At times she skipped, so happy was she to be in the fresh air again.
She carried something gently, and for the whole time she skipped up the hill there was not a single cough.
At the top of the street she turned, and knocked on the dusty door of the old lady. There was a long pause before the door was opened.
“You know you’re not allowed to come here,” said the lady
“But I have stopped coughing,” the little girl replied.
“No, I mean you are not allowed to come here. I am old and have to be left alone because I am weak.”
The little girl did not reply. She reached behind her back, and brought out a bunch of purple tulips. She stood on tiptoes and held them high. The old lady gazed. And she smiled. And then she stepped to one side and the little girl went inside