Sabrina Orah Mark’s column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
The Plague Doctor (Photo: Sabrina Orah Mark)
“I can’t find my plague doctor.” “Your what?” says my mother. “My plague doctor.” “I don’t know what that is,” says my mother. I text her a photo of my plague doctor in his ruffled blouse and beak mask sitting on my bookcase a few months before he disappeared. “I still don’t know what that is,” says my mother. “Forget it,” I say.
“If you want to find it then look for it.” “I am looking for it.” “Then look harder.” “I am looking harder.”
“It’s the strangest thing,” I keep saying. But I know it isn’t the strangest thing.
I tell everyone who will listen that I’ve lost my plague doctor. Nine months ago I wrote about seeing the small porcelain doll in a shop in Barcelona, and wanting him immediately. If he had been real his beak mask would’ve been filled with juniper berries, and rose petals, and mint, and myrrh to keep away a plague I thought belonged only to the past. This was ten years ago. My husband and I were on our honeymoon, and I thought I only wanted the plague doctor. I didn’t know I’d eventually need him, too. “You can’t be serious,” says my brother. “Who loses a plague doctor during a plague?” “I guess I do,” I say.
“We’ll find him,” says my husband. But we never do.
The only explanation is that he fell into a donation bag when I was cleaning out closets, and I accidentally dropped him off at Project Safe. “That is not the real name of the thrift store,” says my brother. But it really is the real name: Project Safe. I imagine my plague doctor at the bottom of a bag of old shoes calling for me. The news keeps breaking. The number of dead keeps rising. I go on Project Safe’s Facebook page. I offer a reward. I will pay whoever bought him five times what they paid. I will donate to the charity of their choice. I will sail across the sea in a paper boat with my pockets full of dried rose petals and fresh air and ancient coins to lure him home.
The manager of Project Safe puts a photo of my plague doctor up by the register. She understands, she tells me, what it feels like to lose something. I feel grateful and ridiculous. The news keeps breaking. The number of dead keeps rising.
I even looked behind the curtains. I even looked in the piano.
The plague doctor is not the only thing I’ve lost since the pandemic began. The longer I am in my house, it seems, the more things I lose. As if there’s a correlation between the hours I inhabit my house and its contents disappearing. “I could’ve sworn I put my copy of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves right here.” “Haven’t seen it,” says my husband. “I’ll help you look,” he says. I look over at our sons. Their rosy cheeks seem to have been replaced by the color of the living room. Is this the year they were supposed to learn all the major rivers? Or is it the year they were supposed to learn how to find the hypotenuse of a triangle? I could spend months going around this entire house picking up everything that’s now lost. I tell my neighbor, the scientist, I’ve lost my plague doctor. But I don’t think he hears me. We’re standing too far apart.
My husband leaves the book he is reading, Journeys out of the Body, open on our bed. “That’s all we need,” I mutter to nobody. I imagine the plague doctor and my husband holding hands on the back of a milk carton. I imagine a toll-free number underneath them in numbers printed so small it could easily be mistaken for pinpricks in the carton, the milk leaking out so slowly it’s barely noticeable until it’s gone.
I tell our mail carrier I’ve lost my plague doctor. “Of course you have, dear,” she says. “Everyone loses their plague doctor.” Her hands are small and covered in plastic gloves or fog. She gives me my mail. Nothing is addressed to me.
Sometimes I hear my husband’s footsteps coming up the stairs and I think he’s about to knock on my office door with the plague doctor safe in his arms.
What I’m trying to say is that I’m mourning something nameless that has vanished into thin air, and I’m calling it my plague doctor. What I’m trying to say is that we didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye. We should’ve at least had the chance to say goodbye. Goodbye, plague doctor! Goodbye, old world! The plague doctor is what I’m holding so I can hold what I’m grieving. Or rather, what I’ll never hold again.
I tell Bruno Bettelheim I’ve lost my plague doctor. “A child,” he says, “needs to understand what is going on within his conscious self so that he can also cope with that which goes on in his unconscious. He can achieve this understanding, and with it the ability to cope, not through rational comprehension of the nature and content of his unconscious but by becoming familiar with it through spinning out daydreams—ruminating, rearranging, and fantasizing about suitable story elements in response to unconscious pressure…” “Excuse me, Bettelheim, for interrupting you but what do you think I’m trying to do here?” Bettelheim looks around. “You lost your plague doctor,” he says. “Vanished into thin air,” I say. A sadness, like a mask, falls over his mouth. His mouth is so beautiful. “I miss mouths,” I say. “I miss my plague doctor,” I say. “I miss stupidly believing history was lived mostly in the past. I miss not being afraid … Bettelheim?” “Yes?” “When will my sons be able to return to their childhoods?” Bettelheim looks at his wrist where a watch should be. “I could’ve sworn I was wearing a watch,” says Bettelheim. The news is breaking. The number of dead keeps rising.
“The child,” says Bettelheim, “fits unconscious content into conscious fantasies, which then enable him to deal with that content.” “Like storing my grief inside a figurine?” I ask. “Yes,” says Bettelheim. “It is here that fairy tales have unequaled value because they offer new dimensions to the child’s imagination … the form and structure of fairy tales suggest images to the child by which he can structure his daydreams and with them give better direction to his life.”
“Which direction are you walking Bettelheim? I’ll walk with you.” We walk slowly down empty street after empty street. Bettelheim stops at a trash can and looks inside. “You never know,” he says.
Other than this fairy tale that is not a fairy tale but the true story of my missing plague doctor, I can’t find a fairy tale in which an object vanishes with no explanation. Even the girl with no hands grows back her hands. Cinderella’s glass slipper is never really missing, and when the prince disappears we know the whole time we can find him inside the beast. Even the darning needle, which breaks and falls down the drain and floats away with the dirty gutter water and is found in the street by schoolboys and is stuck in an eggshell and is run over by a wagon, is never out of our sight. Everything in a fairy tale has already been lost. The fairy tale is where we go to find it again.
I never find my copy of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, but if I had I would’ve copied this down: “I need silence, and to be alone and to go out, and to save one hour to consider what has happened to my world, what death has done to my world.” I want a lost and found in my living room manned daily by Woolf. A small booth with a sliding window. Tap, tap. Woolf slides the window open. “State your missing.” And I state my missing. Obviously she never returns anything. But just hearing her sort through the missing is a comfort.
My husband buys me a new plague doctor who is twice the size of my missing plague doctor. Big enough for my missing plague doctor to possibly be hiding inside. Around the new plague doctor’s waist is a crescent moon, and from it hangs a lantern, and keys, and an empty birdcage. He is so black and slender and beautiful he could easily be mistaken for my plague doctor’s shadow. He is like the grandmother who comforted me when my grandmother died.
“We wanted to hold,” writes Heather McHugh, “what we had.”
“I left you a surprise,” says Eli, my seven-year-old. On my desk is a plague doctor made out of clay with a note: “Plage Dok.” On its chest is a bright pink heart. Now there are two doctors. One made of shadows, and one made of clay. What we lose is also what we gain. I turn on the faucet and out gush more plage doks. I fill up my glass and I drink and I drink. In the glass the plage dok’s letters rearrange themselves like cells: gold lake, pale opal, old page, aged god. I pull each word from the glass, and carefully dry them before they fade. “What’s that?” asks Eli. “Another story?” “I hope,” I say. “What’s it about,” asks Eli. “I think it’s about saying goodbye.”
Read earlier installments of Happily here.
Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim Tsum. Wild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. She lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Georgia.
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