In the British Library Repository

 Katie Chaple



I am the one in the mask

because of dust allergies particularly

sensitive to centuries' old documents,

and, when I look, I see our reflections

in the gloss of the table and also see the buds

of light from the hanging lamps above us.

We each have a box of old letters from a back room—

their folds are stiff, and the paper has the weight of cheesecloth.

I am reading a letter from a shopkeeper in London

to his business partner. It is the same as countless others. 

Business is good, he says, many customers

though no new shipments to place just yet. 

Family, fine—Beatrice is to marry soon, a butcher

who makes a good living. I scribble a few notes—

though have found nothing.


The other man holds the letters

to his nose, inhaling deeply.

One letter after another he lifts and smells,

making two piles. He doesn't read or even unfold them,

and my eyes water just to watch.

He is tracing the plague through England

by smell—stricken households sprinkled correspondence

attempting to prevent the spread of the disease.


I turn back to my piles of letters and notes,

remove my mask, lift the letter from my merchant

of silks and ribbons, and detect a faint stench.

I ask, and he says, Vinegar.