by Cameron Steele
“The habit of despair is worse than despair itself.” –Albert Camus
So I wouldn’t freak out and ruin
our camping trip with prophecies
of death, my husband didn’t tell
me about the lump on his neck
until we were on the road home.
It’s been growing for days, he said,
see? I felt the swollen skin
and squeezed until he swore.
Sorry, doctors in Omaha told us.
It’s everywhere. After surgery he woke
in quarantine. Nurses congratulated
him behind masks. A doctor told me
about the flea that might have bit him
while we camped, how plague spread
through his blood, swelling lymph
nodes, masquerading as cancer.
Only two cases this year. How fascinating.
For weeks I read about the old dead,
one-third of humanity drowned
in their own blood. Plague doctors
dressed up as big hooded birds,
wearing their beaked masks as Death
come bedside to make some final point.
When the CDC asked to study him,
my husband said no big deal, laughed
over dinner and medical bills, becoming
famous for disease. Now he’s heavy
with snores beside me and I drift
off into my own illness: obsession
and doomsday brain, conflicting
diagnoses, no marks on my body
save the ones I’ve made myself.
My doctors too find me fascinating
and my nose grows long in my sleep
breath all caw and camphor shadow
as I prod his stitched throat in the dark.