Short Story Contest #181 Theme: "UFO" courtesy of @Tenderiser Congratulations @edamame for your first short story contest medal with an interesting take on early medical beliefs, The Miasma. ____________________________ The Miasma [1,448] Nattie and I were picking blueberries on the edge of the property, gorging on the fruit that had matured late in the summer. The sky was a blue, clear expanse that reminded me of the ceiling of a great cathedral behind which God was peeking, and made me feel safe. Half my pickings were going into the pockets of my pinafore and half into the basket I had weaved last week. I was thinking of telling Nattie I was almost full when a flock of catbirds startled from the brush. I couldn’t hear the flutter of their wings. I dropped my basket. “Nattie!” I yelled but I couldn’t hear my own voice. I clutched at my throat as it spasmed. I didn’t know if it was because I was afraid or if the Miasma had already come and done irreversible damage. “Nattie!” I yelled again feeling myself choke on my words. I scrambled on top of a boulder, skinning one of my knees. The stone was one of many jagged rocks littered in the undergrowth, making this small section of the land unusable for farming. I strained my eyes to where Nattie should be. I couldn’t see her yellow bonnet and the red hair continually escaping from it, but maybe she could see me. I ripped my pinafore from my dress and turned the pockets inside-out, dropping the blueberries so it would be light enough to wave as a flag. I stood there shaking my apron until I began to reel with the first signs of dizziness. I slid, half ran down the side of the rock, my eyes tearing, my lungs working like bellows trying to contain the grief within me. Alone, I hurried through the brush, crawling beneath bushes, shortcuts Nattie and I had discovered as children, until I could see our cottage. Mama was milking one of our goats. Papa was chopping firewood. I signaled the danger with my hands, pushing motions against the sky, feeling like I was Atlas with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Mama knocked over her pail and ran to our warning bell, a large bronze alarm she rang with all her might. A thunderous peal shook our community. Our neighbors’ small children darted inside from the porch where they had been lounging in the midday sun, mothers fled with their weaving, and men dropped their hoes and water buckets to follow their family into shelter. I did the same, trailing my mother into our house while my father bolted our front door shut. She lit a taper and ushered me through the trap in our floor and into the damp darkness of the stone cellar. I blinked against the gloom, using the flickering flame of the candle to focus. Slowly, my panicked pants returned to normal breathing. My mother brushed my lanky, drab tresses away from my face. “Where’s Natalie, Joanna?” “I didn’t see her,” I confessed, glad my voice was back, but my stomach dropped, feeling guilty for it. I hadn’t been exposed long enough for the Miasma to cause lasting damage. I had outrun most of it, but Nattie could still be in the valley, choking, dizzy, fallen into the brook, head dashed against the rocks. She could be dead and her body mysteriously stolen away. The village had lost twenty to the Miasma during the last month alone and had never recovered anyone missing. “Didn’t you check in with each other?” My father’s face was stern, the upset in it held down like a cold blaze. Nattie had always been his favorite, adventurous and bold, with a fiery temperament to match her hair. She had devoured his stories of travel, while I sat by the hearth knitting, trying not to hear and hope for a safer time that was already gone. “I was the last to whistle.” My father and mother shared a glance. We had been told to communicate with each other often using a piercing sound that cut through the air. It would stop us from losing each other and more importantly, warn us. I tried to remember if Nattie had been silent for more than a short interval when we gathered berries. We hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning – the bread was moldy and the milk we had left overnight had soured. Hunger could have made her forgetful. It could have made me forget to take notice. “I’m sorry.” I didn’t dare meet my father’s eyes. “Oh, Jo.” My mother pulled me into her arms, but my father pulled away. By dawn the Miasma, what the learned men said was an eerie invisible gas that rolled in and out like the tides, had passed. A persistent wind was banging the wind chime into the front door of our house. When we stepped up into the living room, I could hear a mockingbird singing near our window. Crows were fighting over the produce in our garden and our next door neighbors were talking loudly on their porch. We went out to greet them. Thomas, a boy near my age, smiled when he saw me, and looked around for Nattie when he realized she wasn’t with us. His parents came to the same delayed realization; their comfortable expressions turned stricken. The Callahans offered their condolences while both my parents bore up stoically. Only Thomas’s two siblings, toddlers and too young to remember peril once it had departed, sensed nothing amiss and babbled and played. Our community, a village of around 200 people, took turns combing the valley for Nattie’s body in small groups. I described where I had last seen her but couldn’t bring myself to go with them. The patrols didn’t find her near the stream like I thought she would be. On the fifth day of the search, I sat by a large oak watching our goats, guarding them from coyotes with a rifle. The predators rarely approached during the daytime and my parents had given me the task mostly as busy work and to stop me from thinking. I was having nightmares, reliving the event and breaking into a waking sweat every evening. While I watched the goats, Thomas was repairing the pen for one of the Callahans’ pigs. “A bear might have dragged her off,” he said when he decided to take a break from his work and join me at the tree, “or the stream could have carried her away.” “That doesn’t make sense. Animals would have left tracks, a scrap of cloth, or bones. And the stream isn’t full enough during August to carry someone far.” Thomas touched the tip of his nose, thinking. “Unless she was taken up to heaven, we’ll find her, Jo.” He reached for my right hand furtively. He was seventeen this summer, had filled out and become tall and broad shouldered. I was two years behind, still growing out of what my mother termed my stubborn countenance. Next year, I might be pretty. Either way, I’d be old enough to wed and join the two richest tracts of land in the valley. “When we have our first girl,” Thomas continued, “we’ll name her Natalie.” I yanked my hand away from his. I wasn’t ready to replace my sister and although I had had more than a few years to think about it, I still hadn’t resigned myself to marrying Thomas. I loved him as a childhood friend, a sibling even, but I couldn’t see myself as his wife. “It hasn’t even been a week yet,” I said coldly. “Sorry.” Thomas stood, putting his hands in his trouser pockets. He frowned and kicked at a pebble. “But you know I’m trying, Jo. And I wish you would, too.” “I am.” “Not hard enough,” he said bitterly. “I think you need some time alone,” I snapped. I rose from the oak and began herding the goats away while Thomas stood exasperated with his hands on his hips. He called my name and it was only when I was a good distance away that I turned around to yell at him to go away. Nothing came out. Oh God. I clutched at my throat and could see Thomas shading his eyes against the sun, squinting at me confusedly as I panicked. I signaled danger but he came running towards me. No! Get back! Warn the village! I fell on my knees, my vision swimming as Thomas halted and stared stupefied at the sky. I dropped and lay prone and prayed with all my might that he had enough sense and time to get away. Natalie. I thought, even as my awareness faded. Against the sky, a silver disc swayed like the great halo of an angel.