Enza

A Bird Named Enza

A Short Story by Edison McDaniels, MD | surgeonwriter.com
Keywords: fiction, influenza, inspiration

I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
And in flew Enza.

I remember how the words drifted in through the open window, along with the dust motes shimmering in the bright sunlight. The lace curtains hung limp and impotent, the air absolutely still. A waist high table occupied the far corner opposite the bed. Upon it a clean white linen cloth, a metal pitcher of water, and a porcelain basin. I remember how the basin’s edge had a chip out of it the size of a two-bit piece. I remember every detail of that room, for I had in that one terrible week no better occupation than its constant inspection.

The bed itself was a plain enough thing: a sagging mattress set atop cinder blocks, no ornamentation at all. My parents were frugal people, then and forever after. I don’t think it had anything to do with the deaths of my sisters. I never had more than three pairs of pants, or more than twice that many shirts. The walls of my room were barren. My only extravagance was a few peacock feathers I’d plucked from the trash on the way to school. I didn’t know them to be bad luck at the time.

We were clean folks. Cleanliness is next to Godliness my mother used to say. And so laying in that bed all those years ago, what stands out is how my mother kept clean sheets under me all the time I was sick. Given how things turned out, I can’t imagine how she did it. She or Grannie Mae, my father’s mother, changed my sheets once or twice a day.

Yessir, I remember that week like it was yesterday. Nineteen and eighteen it was, ninety-two years ago. I was ten, middle of five kids, the only boy. It was the flu, of course. Influenza. In flew Enza.

No school. They’d all been closed on account of the panic. You couldn’t go anywhere that people didn’t look at you cross-eyed if you so much as hiccoughed. Every one wore a mask. People turned blue and dropped dead in the street. I saw it happen three times. A cart used to come down the road every morning, collecting bodies. I saw that too.

Then I got sick. I lay in my bed and didn’t leave my room for a week. Nothing to do but lay and stare at the ceiling. Couldn’t see but next door brick out the window. Sometimes I practiced sleeping. Mostly I tossed and turned a lot. If the sun was just right, usually about midday this was, I made little shadow animals on the wall with my fingers. A dog, a bird, whatever. Anything to pass the time. Once, I heard a doctor tell my mother to get me on a waiting list for a casket. I never saw that doctor again. I wanted Grannie Mae or mother to keep me company, but they were too busy. I’ll get to that.

Under my window was a little dirt playground. My sisters, the four of them, along with a few neighbor girls, skipped rope there incessantly. The whipping sound of that rope as their thin arms turned it again and again, followed immediately and inevitably by the thump thump of booted feet, was my constant companion that week, as was their chanting and singing. As always, they rose and fell and made up a sing song of different ditties to suit the moment. But that terrible Fall, there was mostly only one ditty:

I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
And in flew Enza.

I remember the sing song rhythm of their collected voices, sung with a choir gusto only little girls of a certain age can muster. Oh how they clapped their hands! And at the end of each line, winded, they barely got the last word out before they gasped in unison and started anew the next. They did this over and over, until it was positively etched in my mind. On my sick bed, with nothing to do for hours at a time save listen to my own tortured breathing, I should have gone mad without my sisters outside my window.

I pictured them in the yard, in their long, white, pinafore dresses, jumping in the dirt alongside the unpainted picket fence. The branches of the twin oaks met and intermingled over their heads. I even pictured the sheets on the clothesline behind them.

What I didn’t picture, or even hear until the last day, was how the voices dropped away. There one day, gone the next. And never to return.After that, the voices I heard were those of my mother and Grannie Mae sobbing in the hall outside my room.

After that week the shine went out of everything. But over the years whenever I have grown the least fed up or restless, my sisters come back to me in their collective chorus, singing about a bird named Enza.

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