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From the Whistler


“And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five chil­dren with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed that it was the end of the world.” The town was Siena, Italy. The year was 1348. Agnolo di Tura was a shoemaker and tax collec­tor who would later write a chronicle on the pestilence that took the lives of his wife and all five of his children—today it is known as the Black Plague.

Agnolo goes on to say that “it was all so horrible that I, the writer, cannot think of it and so will not continue.” Yet the Black Death and other deadly plagues hold a dark fascination—Connie Willis, for example, quotes Agnolo in an epigram in her 1992 time travel fantasy Doomsday Book. Richard Adams’ The Plague Dogs (1977) imagines two pooches escaping a biological weapons lab and spread­ing contagion (switch the dogs out for a bat and a pangolin, and the book becomes eerily prescient). Katherine Anne Porter drew from her own experience battling influenza during the 1918 pandemic in her novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider. And Albert Camus examined an epi­demic through an existential lens in his 1947 novel The Plague. I myself admit to using bubonic plague as a plot device in an early novel (The Flower of Clear Burning).

But if, after the last year and a half, you’ve lost your taste for pandemic history and fiction—I don’t blame you. Perhaps it’s best to put this Whistling Shade in a desk drawer to be read in some hopeful future year after the Delta variant has run its course. But as a matter of historical record, as a chronicle of the fear, suffering, and sheer tedium of the COVID-19 pandemic, we present you with our 20th Anniversary Issue, whose theme is “the plague”. We use the word “plague” in the loosest possible terms here, including war, homeless­ness, crime, tornadoes, car trouble, abandonment, and, yes, even Hollywood.

I tend to be a sunny-side-of-the-street optimist, but I also realize that there is sometimes a need to give voice to our griefs, be they from a shared disaster or a personal tragedy. And there are moments of living to treasure even in these dark times—like the almost-tame rabbits Greg Watson remembers in “To My Daughter During a Pan­demic”. Even Agnolo di Tura wound up remarrying. This issue is for remembering all we’ve lost—and to better times ahead.

- Joel Van Valin