A historical retelling based on true events during the Bubonic Plague
San Francisco’s Chinatown, c. 1900
“I am a-afraid,” she tells me.
Pausing in my gardening, which amounts to planting seeds in colorful pots that will decorate our back porch, I look over at Nuwa. “You can stay here if you don’t want to go home tonight.”
Nuwa brushes the soil from her hands, then straightens. Her petite frame is nearly a foot shorter than mine, and today she wears her dark hair in two braids, making her look younger than her twenty-two years. Nuwa has been working for our family for a full year now at our San Francisco home, and her English is coming along nicely. But when she’s nervous, or afraid, she stutters.
“I can’t leave my aunt alone.”
I nod because I understand all about being alone. My father is gone most days, working as a city official, and my mother is laid up in her bed. Her lungs weak, her strength depleted. It is why Nuwa was hired in the first place.
Between the two of us, Nuwa and I manage quite well, although there are other things my nineteen-year-old self might want to do. Some days I long for more freedom, but then I realize the only way that would happen is if my mother died. The physician has confirmed more than once that she would not recover.
“Is your aunt well?” I ask.
When Nuwa doesn’t answer, I peer over at her. Nuwa’s head is bent in concentration over one of the garden pots, and she’s hacking at the dirt for no apparent reason.
“Nuwa?” I keep my tone gentle because something is not right.
When Nuwa deigns to meet my gaze, there are tears in her deep brown eyes. “She has been ill.”
My breath stalls. How ill? “What are her symptoms?”
Nuwa’s lashes lower. “She won’t eat. And she’s hot and cold at once.”
I don’t want to speak the words, Bubonic plague, but they aren’t necessary after all. Our California Governor Henry Gage spent two years denying that the plague was in existence. He didn’t want the city or the state to be quarantined and suffer devastating economic effects. His denial has been a death sentence to many.
Yet, perhaps Nuwa’s aunt doesn’t have the plague.
But when Nuwa doesn’t return in the morning for another day of work, I begin to worry. I tend to my mother, in her rose-scented room, with its gauzy curtains billowing in the soft spring breeze.
“Is Nuwa late?” she asks when I enter with the lunch tray. Her thin face is pale this morning.
I hesitate, the tray balanced in my hands. What excuse could I give not to worry my mother? She frets over every minor detail. “Nuwa couldn’t come today.” I change the subject quickly. “There are letters for you in the post.” I set the tray next to her, then help her sit up. I try not to wince at her frail, twig-like arms.
Mother reaches for a handkerchief. After coughing deeply into the linen square, my mother says, “Thank you, Bethany.” She takes a few bites of her meal. She won’t eat much; she never does. The rest of the day moves forward like a slow march, but my heart won’t rest. My father is out of town, so there will be no reprieve tonight.
Nuwa still hasn’t arrived, and there’s been no word. She lives in Chinatown, and somehow she manages to get around the barriers of her quarantined neighborhood to come to our home. Has her aunt grown worse? If her aunt has the plague, then we’ll all be at risk.
While my mother naps in the late afternoon, I sort through the rest of the post. A notice is there—from the US Government—about the antiplague vaccine. 2,000 have been administered, and now 13,000 more are ready.
My mind shifts to Nuwa. I need to alert her so that she doesn’t miss this next round. Nuwa turned down the first offer. She, like many Chinese, don’t trust white doctors and nurses.
As the sun sets, the house plunges into silence.
The twilight shifts through lavender then violet, then finally indigo.
And my mind festers. Turning and turning.
Where is Nuwa?
Sleep will not come, and I pace the parlor while my mother sleeps upstairs.
The battle in my mind ends as I slip outside into the brisk night. I hope my mother will not wake and need something. The walk is only about a mile, but the clouds hang low, covering the pale yellow moon.
Reading about the barriers set up to quarantine Chinatown isn’t the same thing as coming to a stop before them. Ropes stretch from one end of the street to the other, then disappear around the corner. Two police officers with their nightsticks and pistols and cigarettes stand guard before Nuwa’s street.
I must find a way in.
Then find a way to bring her out.
As I wait in the deeper shadow of a sycamore tree, I can hear the thudding of my own pulse, a ticking clock in my ears. I tamp down fear climbing up my throat. Think, I tell myself. And then, there is a commotion as two Chinese men in dark clothing try to duck under the rope and leave. The policemen immediately stop them, shouting threats, moving in close.
It’s my chance, and I take it.
My footsteps are muted as I run, moving in and out of alleys, and avoiding the quicklime powder scattered at the base of buildings in an effort to keep disease at bay. By the time I reach the narrow building where Nuwa lives, I can hardly catch a full breath. At the opposite end of the street, a fire burns refuse doused with chloric chemicals. The air is acrid, bitter.
But I push my legs farther, up the interior stairs and through the sluggish dark. When I reach Nuwa’s door, I hesitate for the first time since leaving my house. I can plainly smell disinfectant coming from her rented room. My eyes water, and I wonder if it’s too late.
Knocking, I beg my heartrate to slow, to counter the panic that seems be taking over my senses.
No one answers. Not one sound can be heard.
I knock again. “Nuwa, it’s Bethany.”
The seconds are like minutes.
Finally, the door opens a crack. Nuwa’s dark eyes are gaping wells of despair.
“Are you all right?” I whisper because it seems the right thing to do.
She nods, then shakes her head as tears fall. “My aunt died this morning, and they took her away.”
I want to comfort Nuwa, pull her into my arms, but the door between us is not the only barrier dividing us. If she’s been exposed to the plague, then she can expose me.
Yet my decision has already been made. Long before I knocked on her door.
“Come home with me,” I say. “You can stay in the back room until we know . . . that you aren’t sick too. Then, I’ll take you for the vaccination.”
I can see the word no in her eyes, even before she speaks it. But I am prepared.
“Mother would want you there,” I continue. “If you’re sick, you’ll need someone to take care of you.”
“I can’t let you take that risk.”
I move a step back. “We won’t touch. We don’t even have to breathe the same air.”
Time inches forward, and I wait as the scent of disinfectant seeps into my clothing and stings my eyes.
“Why?” Nuwa asks. The question is simple, yet complicated too.
“Because you’re my friend,” I say in a quiet voice. “Because you care for my mother. And because you’re the most loyal person I know.”
Nuwa’s blinking is rapid, and she steps back from the door. When it doesn’t close, and hope burns hot in my chest.
Moments later, she appears again, a bundle in her hand. She shuts the door, a finality in the click. She nods at me, and I nod back.
We cannot touch, we cannot embrace in relief or comfort, but our hearts are one.
“This way.” Nuwa points to the next set of stairs leading upward. “We’ll climb across the rooftops and avoid the policemen.”
I draw in a stuttering breath. Heights and me are like vinegar and water. “If you can flee across the rooftops, a vaccine is a simple matter.”
Nuwa’s eyes are even darker in the deep gray of the stairwell. “I am a-afraid.”
“I will get the vaccine with you.” My promise is a whisper in the dark. “Rooftops or vaccines. We will face them together.”