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The 20th Century Plague

the.believer's picture

 Jenny Cai


Paul Grobestein

May 7, 2011

The 20th Century Plague


Author’s note: For the final project, I decided to incorporate all the stories we learned in class into one. This story is a 20thcentury rendition of the The Plague by Albert Camus. I feature Thassa, Charles Darwin and Susan Orlean in my story and have also touched on some ideas of existentialism. The plague is modeled from the ebola virus, also found in Preston’s The Hot Zone. Enjoy!



INTRODUCTION – 20th Century Malaysia

The village Orlean is what one would describe as plain and basic. It strives for neutrality and has been gracefully isolated from society for the past few hundred years. The 7,000 villagers of Orlean have been untouched by the corruption of politics, thereby avoiding the misfortunes of war. The unassuming villagers have lived life using the skills and trades passed down from father to son. The only excitement stems from the youngest of children who have not yet grown accustomed to the banality of the village. These children race to a port, just two miles from land to watch the massive ships dock and refuel before continuing on their journeys. Even then, these children quickly grow weary of this activity and begin adapting to the customs in the village. While walking down the path of the village, the most prominent building is the central hospital with shops lined down the dirt road that have been run by the same families for many generations. Except for a few renovations here and there, a snapshot of the village from the 19th century could easily pass as the here and now. With an adequate setting, the first character, Charles Darwin, emerges.


During one of many hot and humid days, where the stench of mud and earth clings to the skin, a sharply dressed gentleman walks into an Orleanian bakery. While wiping the dripping sweat from his brows, he approaches the counter and purchases a glass of iced tea. Glancing around the shop, he sees a table with two stoic young lovers, a mother breast feeding her infant, and an elderly man idly gazing at his coffee. Forcing his suave smile in place, an act mastered by one raised in the metropolitan, he approaches the elderly man, seeking his company. The elderly man hesitates initially but having seen the young lad already set his beverage down, he succumbs. Charles begins, “Awful weather huh? I’d expect an air conditioner or dehumidifier”. The apathetic man sips his coffee in silence. Charles continues, “I’m new to this village. From the states actually. Do you have any advice for a newcomer for the next few weeks?”

            The old man replies, “From the states, you say? What brings you here to Orlean? We don’t get many visitors in this part of town. You wouldn’t happen to be involved with the government, are you? A fugitive perhaps?”

            Charles shook his head profusely and said, “No, sir. I’m a journalist, writing an informational article on the village life of Malaysia. I just want to observe and report on the cultural and societal interactions in the community.” He quickly flashes another smile to accentuate his sincerity.

            The old man stands up and snickers “What you see is what it is, nothing more and nothing less.” He abruptly stands and exits the bakery, disappearing on the downtrodden path. Charles, dumbfounded, sits with a frown on his handsome face. Moments later, he gulps his half-full iced tea and steps out onto the road. Coming across a few pigeons pecking at pieces of grain, he notices a few physical differences in comparison to the pigeons back at home. Walking down the market, he notices a neon-colored shop among the many other dull ones. Smirking, he mutters “Exotic dancers, perhaps?” He enters the store and is greeted with the most accommodating smile since his arrival. The shopkeeper approaches him and eagerly extends her hand to Charles.

            “Welcome! Welcome!” she exclaims. “I haven’t seen your handsome face before! Are you staying in this part of town or traveling elsewhere? She reaches for an orchid and assertively thrusts it into Charles hands.

            Although confused, he accepts wholeheartedly. The woman’s warm, infectious smile plays a major role in the exchange. He joyfully gives her the same spiel he’d given to the old man, feeling slightly indecent. Looking around, he is startled by the variety of orchids resting upon the store’s shelves. If one were to randomly choose any two colors, they could be found mixed harmoniously together on an orchid.

            A well-dressed man steps into the shop and the woman quickly greets him. “Dr. Rieux, welcome! How can I help you today?“

            Dr. Rieux responds, “My mother is feeling ill and I would like to bring an orchid for my next visit. Any suggestions, Thassa?”

            Thassa retreats to the back of the shop and quickly appears with a lovely, white, and delicate orchid. She hands it to Dr. Rieux, exclaiming “Free of charge! You’ve done so much for everyone and I can’t possibly expect you to pay me! Also, here is a stock of homemade plant nutrients to pour in the water. Your wife will be so pleased!” Moving back to Charles, she suggests a few orchids that are easier to care for.

            Changing the subject, Charles begins to ask “Would you mind showing me around the village? The other natives do not appear to be too hospitable to foreigners.”

            Thassa responds, “Don’t you worry! I moved in a month ago and I had trouble fitting in as well but it all ends up the way it should. You’ll see!”

One week passes by.

            The doctor carries his medicine pouch and tends to a bed-ridden elderly woman. The daughter states that her mother had complained about having a high fever, an overwhelming headache and constant muscular pain. Dr. Rieux examines and notices a few distinct features, a swollen pharynx and flushed skin. The old woman suddenly vomits onto the side of the bed, a dark pool of blood. She screams in anguish and faints. The doctor mixes herbs to ease the pain and help relieve the fever. Although puzzled, Dr. Rieux leaves the home and continues to his next patient.


            Thassa closes her shop, feeling especially delighted after selling over twenty pots of orchids today. She meets with Charles as they stroll leisurely down the market. They would pause by some shops and Thassa would greet the shopkeepers, asking them about their family and whether the orchids are still blooming. Reaching the end of the road, Charles begins to start on the topic he was waiting to introduce. “Why do you think this town is hostile to foreigners? I’ve been here for a week and have barely received a greeting from anyone.”

            Thassa replies, “Oh, just wait! They’ll see the charm in you! When I first arrived with my potted plants and set up shop, I was ignored for the first week. But the more folks I chatted with, the more at home I felt. These people, they know only how to live a routine life, doing the same things from when they wake to when they sleep. You’re still  new here! Once you settle down, they will come to love you as you will come to love them!”

            Charles remains mute for a few moments and then says, “Do they ever talk about politics? Or ever wonder about events occurring out in the world beyond this village? Perhaps, the technological advances made in America? Imagine the commercial growth and medical knowledge to be gained if these villagers just reached beyond. Any of the major powers would be willing to invest millions on this village if granted more access to the ports.”

            Thassa smiles and simply replies, “These folks love life as it is.”

A few days later

            Dr. Rieux notices several cases similar to the elderly woman, each with blood-laced vomit and severe diarrhea for a few days and subsequently, death. He initiates strict sanitary measures as precautions to a potentially contagious disease. Alarmed and perplexed by these cases, he consults his co-workers and they report similar findings. The doctors unanimously agree to issue soon-to-be ubiquitous health warnings outside every clinic. After meeting with the municipal health officers, they agree to look over the issue but feel as if the warnings are rushed, especially with little evidence.


Part II

Two weeks later.

            The head of the municipal succumbs to the foreign disease and struggles for his life as if it is a daily battle. Dr. Rieux stays by his bedside while he mumbles nonsensical speech, most likely from the delirium of his hazardously elevated fever. Dr. Rieux is appalled as he observes the disease take its course. The man’s skin is glistening red and overflowing with sweat. Trails of blood lead narrow streaks from the sides of his mouth, winding all the way down to his neck. Dr. Rieux realizes the man is breathing his last breaths. Not long after, the man struggles for his last painful breath. The room reeks of death; the wooden furniture is laced with layers of dust with the sun refusing to shine through the window. The atmosphere is full of gloom and stale air except for the lonely and beautiful orchid resting by the window sill. Even in the presence of death, it continues to thrive.

            Soon, what began as a handful of deaths quickly escalated to several hundred cases with the village at a high state of tension and full of concern. The villagers worry amongst themselves, “What could it be? We should stay inside.” Post mortem reveal degeneration and atrophy of endothelial tissue with vast hemorrhaging throughout the body from ruptured blood vessels. Antibiotics seemingly have no effect, suggesting viral pathogen. Oddly the cases of death show that females are at higher risk. The villagers also begin to turn their attention to this new Charles Darwin character. Up until a week ago, he was relatively unknown but has now crawled his way into almost every conversation in Orlean.

            Thassa’s friendship with Darwin is now questioned by all and she is constantly met with a barrage of questions. The villagers would wonder into her shop looking for orchids and confirm the rumor of her relationship with this foreigner. One of the page boys overhears Charles reporting over the telephone on the “progress” he made with the villagers, only half of which is true.  Thassa is still bombarded with questions, “Is it true that you knew this foreigner? Is he an American spy?” They continue, unrelenting,  

Thassa greets them with her signature smile, “He is a journalist! Not a government official.”

            Charles had been stopping by the orchid shop to help close up for a week now with villagers nudging each other and pointing to him as he walks by. He is now met with uneasy eyes and people even spit as he walks. Peeved, he walks into the shop and frantically shouts, “Why is everyone greeting me with hatred? This damn village has no manners! Everyone is so backwards and refuses to move forward. What kind of a doctor picks herbs to treat a virus? Was it so wrong of me to try and make these people see the benefits America can give? They’d have access to cleaner facilities, medication to cure this damn virus and economic growth. What’s so awful about that? I’m here to help, to make them see what they’ve been missing out on. These people, they’re stuck in their ways. In the evolution tree everyone is branching out and expanding except Orlean. The people haven’t changed at all since this village was first inhabited. America is a strong and powerful nation. We are the fittest of the fit and want to continue expanding commercially overseas. We just want access to the ports and in return, we’ll spend millions to better your community. Who wouldn’t want this?”

            Thassa responds, “Take a seat and calm your anger, dear. The folks are reacting with hostility because of the recent deaths from the disease and are associated you’re arrival with it. They are not accustomed to any changes and as an outsider, they are seeking to blame you. “Here is an orchid to brighten your day.” “Just add this powder into the water once a week.”


A few days later.

            The Malaysian government begins to intervene with the increasing number of deaths. The village is quarantined. Food and other necessities will be shipped into the village. The death toll has climbed to a staggering 700 deaths, with 1/10 of the people dead. This new age plague is all everyone whispers of. No one has yet recovered from this disease once contracted, including Dr. Rieux’s mother. He sits by her bedside as she struggles in her last moments. Heavy doses of pain relievers have been administered to her to ensure that she would pass away in the most comfortable state possible. Watching the disease slowly consume his mothers body, Dr. Rieux feels the same anguish as with the many patients he has already seen with the same fate. He has handled at least a few dozen cases, growing accustomed to the stench and fatalities of this new-found plague.

            Meanwhile Charles is anxious, with growing desperation for a way out of the village. He remains alone and has even stopped visiting Thassa altogether. He attempts to call to America asking for assistance but to no avail. The government has set up guards among the village, ruining his attempts to leave. He reaches out again for another plea to the American government and finally, they respond. A special unit from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) arrives at Orlean, heavily suited head to toe. They begin running tests on everything from the water to the villagers’ blood. Charles is told that the Malaysian government is so desperate for a cure that they have reached out to foreign powers. Whoever is able to produce and distribute a viable treatment or cure for this plague, will obtain unlimited commercial access to the port. Charles helps the biomedical team as much as he can with getting around while the villagers refuse to cooperate and provide their blood for samples.


A week later

            The CDC announces the plague is transmitted from person to person by an exchange of bodily fluids and a vaccine is currently in its testing stage. The origin of the virus is still unknown. As a precaution, the villagers remain in their homes and keep their distance, even the closest of lovers seem like strangers. The telephone is now the main mode of communication used. Fearing infection and death, the villagers remain in the comfort of their homes. Initial trials of treatment on human subjects end disastrously. A young boy, near the end of the diseased state, suffers from a seizure moments after the first treatment was administered and dies. Dr. Rieux faithfully makes his rounds to each patient, fully aware of the risks of infection. His colleagues also succumb to the disease but he continues to perform his duties, as he begins to lose hope. How could he have high hopes when every case leads to death? He begins seeking answers.  “If my purpose in life is to heal, what then is my purpose if I fail? Am I free to seek another purpose? Do I actually hold my own destiny? An external factor beyond my control is death. I was born to die. Yet, I can control my actions, my thoughts, my prayers. To what extent are these actions and thoughts truly mine?” Within his cool exterior, he wages war with his mind.

             The CDC found a missing link after taking samples from the infected villager’s home. They traced the disease back to the orchids, sitting in every infected home. After searching Thassa’s shop, they found bags of plant food that mutates the orchid. The plant food chemically mutates the fragrance released by the orchid. Continued inhalation of these molecules suppresses the human’s immune system to fight off viral infections. Thassa did not know the effects of her plant food and blamed herself for the deaths of many. She was kept in a facility for questioning by authorities. Unable to face the burden of her emotions, she removed herself from this world.