Gezelligheid 2: Liz Breazeale’s “Survival in the Plague Years”

“Survival in the Plague Years” by Liz Breazeale, published in Issue 37 of Passages North.

I’ve been thinking a lot about current trends in literature, in what “we” (in academia or at AWP or as published in xxx journal) deem literary or worthy or… I could talk myself in circles about this, but I’d rather read than talk. Reading Breazeale’s fiction piece in the most recent issue of Passages North helps calm my cynical-and-overly-analytical heart, even as this is a story that causes me to cringe.

I like it when reading something makes me cringe.

We carry our families in our clothes, our lungs, as the alcohol-thick scent of disintegration, terror. Sew their image into our swollen eyelids, the way they grope for us, all blackened sores and gasps.

We already think of them as memories. Choke on the ashes of how they were—our children with skin like fresh-laid eggs, our wives with blown-glass bodies. How they taste now—as dark, empty spaces where we huddle, watching as they perish.

The prose winds its way through centuries of disease, through men and women who make choices in order to survive, in order to die. This is a story told over and over, the same story in different symptoms and treatments and bodies. Breazeale gives name to the horrifying, to the fear of death and maybe, also, the fear of living.

I want to read more short stories like this one, more fiction that blends past and present in a way that pushes me towards the future. (Breazeale’s work puts me in mind of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First, another kind of genre-bending historical-fictional-biography.) Evocative, historical, and very, very real, “Survival in the Plague Years” is a piece to read once and then read again.

And maybe again.