Chapter Twenty: Outbreak Part One

Editor’s Note: This is—best I can tell—all that is known and recorded about the outbreak in Vine. I say “outbreak” or “the outbreak” because the disease never got a name. It occurred—roughly—around 1923, and would last for the remainder of the decade, if not into the 1930s. There are those in Vine who still believe the disease remains a threat—people so rigid about precautions that they remain homebound except for church. They avoid citrus. They are forgotten by the rest of Vine. The people of Vine, for the most part, do not remember the outbreak, or at least collectively repress the impulse to talk about it. Hell, writing this won’t do my future professional reputation any favors. Nevertheless, I feel duty- and honor-bound to present, in the style of the official Vine Histories, what I’ve been able to cobble together. 

Vine Establishes The Seminary Program

Now it was in those days that the population of Vine was growing and tentative measures of exchange with the outside world were being explored. For though the land of Vine was consecrated for God’s chosen people in the Americas, it was clear to the Third Council of the Elders of Vine that complete isolationism was impractical. Considerations included trade, evangelism, and replenishment of the gene pool (now it was in those days and had been since the Revelation of Vine that newcomers were allowed if so called by Vine and if they were humble servants of the Lord). But once a resident of Vine, whether thanks to devotion to the Lord or peace with the land, none left Vine. 

Thus to promote exchange and evangelism, the Elders of Vine deemed it appropriate to establish the Seminary program. Young men, coming of age, who felt the preacher’s call or demonstrated exceptional intelligence, could opt to study for two years at a university outside of Vine, with implicit instruction of a moral imperative to spread the Gospel of the Lord while keeping Vine secret and secure (except in those cases where an outsider might be deemed a good fit to be called to Vine). The men selected for Seminary were often sons of Elders, though selection was not limited strictly to those who were fortunate by birth. 

Bob Swanson and Son Achieve Success Through Hard Work

As was the case everywhere in the Americas, those who possessed intelligence and fortitude to do what was necessary could indeed become Captains of Industry. Bob Swanson, for example, had distinguished himself as an exceptional builder of homes and businesses. There were always those willing to work in Vine, and Bob Swanson had assembled a rotating work crew of runaway slaves, remaining Indigenous men, and Civil War army deserters into a crew of dependable and skilled builders. When Bob Swanson was too old to see the numbers on his books clearly, he passed the business onto his son, Bob Swanson, Jr., who himself assembled a similar crew of reputable and skilled builders. And so it was that God continued to smile on the sons of the Swanson family, blessing them with development contracts for many of Vine’s oldest establishments and most rapidly expanding neighborhoods. Though Bob Swanson and sons were not Elders, they were so favored by God, as were many of Vine who grew prosperous in those days of the Third Elder Council. 

The Introduction of Citrus

It was two years after the establishment of the Seminary program that citrus was first brought to Vine. Aloysius Wilkinson III returned with lemons, Franklin Davies III with limes, Lysander Adams III with oranges. Each planted in their yard, and the people of Vine marveled at these new kinds of trees and their offerings. Before long, men planted whole groves, and the vendors of Vine began selling lemon-lime water, orange creamsicles, lemon tarts, citrus-marinated grilled meats. But often, the cravings of the people of Vine could be satisfied by suckling a single slice. Thus it became fashionable for the Elders of Vine, in a display of status, to keep a chewed-down rind in their jaws, like tobacco. 

There soon were enough citrus groves that a profitable industry grew. Elders were happy to use their established connections to import and export citrus. Work crews were happy harvesting. Contracts with Piggly Wiggly were signed. Lydia Adams, wife of Lysander Adams III, authored the cookbook A Vine Table, sold to the outside world as Ancient Tennessee Mountain Recipes

Editor’s note: rumors of Lydia Adams being a witch remain unconfirmed, but persist. Of all the various deceptions, conspiracies, and whispered stories of all the Elder Councils of Vine, the Third and Fourth Councils might be the most shrouded in mystery. The First Council decreed records should be at least partially destroyed, almost no records survive of the Second Council’s doings, the Seventh Council presided over the chaos of the 1980s, but for my money, the Third and Fourth Council are the shadiest. Sorry, a true Vine History would not have interruptions. 

Initial Sickness Affects Some of Vine’s Elders

The initial manifestations of the virus exhibited the following symptoms: painful boils on skin, severe itching, dryness and discoloration of skin, rotting gums, swelling of the joints in feet and ankles, high fever, fatigue, and languorousness. 

It is believed the first to contract was Lysander Adams III, who recorded in his journals on the morning of October 14, 1923: “afflicted with a most infernal irritant of dry skin today. No amount of scratching could relieve my chest and legs, and my skin did flake as might the scraped detritus of a freshly cleaned fish.” On November 2, 1923: “more red blotching today, I fear lakeside sun treatments are not working.” 

Aloysis Wilkinson III records on October 20, 1923: “spit more blood today. Have abstained from tobacco in the last week to no avail. Ankle pain has made walking difficult and as a result I am extremely irritable. Nearly struck Martha at dinner and was shocked at my own temper…”

Franklin Davies III records on November 7, 1923: “had reason again to wear the mask today, as any portion of my face not gray with peeling was deep red bordering on burgundy. A boy asked today how a servant of God could be so afflicted with such ghastly misfortune, and I stopped just short of caning the lad…no matter, for judging by his gaunt figure, the boy’s father was in greater misfortunes than I…if the boy was not a Miracle Baby…”

Each man mentions, at various points between October 1923 – November 1923, experiencing disorienting and violent urges. “…I don’t know why she offended so, but I became desirous of ripping her tongue from her mouth and lofting it above my head as if a boast to God’s angels…” “…upon whirling to answer the man, I became so dizzy that my left foot lost the ground, and it was only my proximity to the tavern’s horse-post that rescued sure balance…” “…and so I took my knife to the skin of the slaughtered deer, reveling with disquieting—nay, demonic—glee in the sound of the skin separated from itself as I ripped off the poor animal’s coat…” 

Each man describes breaking some sort of household or farm implement: a hammer through a cellar door, a wine glass shattered against a wall, an axe splitting through a fencepost in an outburst of frustration caused by joint pain. 

Each man pardons himself: these feelings are outside of the norm.

During this period of initial outbreak, from October 1923 – November 1923, Vine experienced a dozen deaths: nine deaths of people aged 54 or older, three deaths of people aged six or younger. None reported to have symptoms similar to the Elders’.

Elders Determine Illness To Be A Test From God

The Elders convened to discuss the outbreak. Fragmentary surviving minutes records from the Council meeting of December 1, 1923, as recorded by Secretary Seth Ruth II (himself aged 87 and afflicted with enough ravages of age that it seems his infected status was never speculated upon) are as follows:

Call to order, all 12 members of the Council of Elders present. 

Editor’s note: no indication of infection status for any members present.

Old business: …as such, it shall be henceforth that Seminarians shall be limited to traveling to Original Colonies only, so as to limit…thus it shall be decided that the Millers’ Tithe must be…annual Chili Cook-Off returned the sum of $212 to Church of Vine…

Editor’s Note: the financial parts of these are always the most obscured, but here’s an example of how the Elders enriched themselves off the backs of the people of Vine: the Miller’s Tithe. Industries in Vine tithed to the Council and Church. Citrus? That’s a new, lucrative industry putting money in the Elder’s pockets. Anyone talking about this period as a time of economic growth for Vine while negating the loss of life is covering for the Third Council’s greed.

New business: re-assignments of workers from lemon grove to…further discussion of quality inspection demands and inquiries regarding safety of citrus groves from the people of Vine shall be, for now, tabled. To be resumed summer 1924…

On the topic of recent sicknesses:

Alyosius Wilkinson III spoke, saying: “The question must be asked: is citrus bringing disease, or is it, as Elder Seth has postulated, more ill will from the witches, long thought stamped out of Vine?”

James Sherman III spoke, saying: “we must look at known variables: these illnesses and their associated symptoms did not appear in Vine until the importing of citrus, along with its associated customs, including the drinking of juice and the jaw-chewing of rinds. The facts do not rule out witchcraft, but do not suggest the discussion of witchcraft to be practical.”

Alyosius Wilkinson III spoke, saying: “witch-jealousy cannot be discounted.”

Franklin Davies III spoke, saying: “do not my friends forget about the potential of evil within people of Vine. Most are humble servants of God yes but there are those among the work crews within our booming Citrus Industry that have the capacity to be infected with evil and may—in fits of covetousness at the blessings The Lord has bestowed on say for example the Elders on this council—be induced. Underestimate at your own peril my friends the tentacles of Communism stretching even unto Vine.”

Lysander Adams III spoke, saying: “This disease is a test from God, meant to be overcome. The strongest of the faithful shall survive. Is your faith not the size of a mustard seed? Courage, brethren. Do not devolve into despair or give in to wicked thoughts. Like all sickness, this too shall pass.”

Editor’s note: was anyone in Vine infected at this time? Who knows. Possibly the grove workers, as was speculated about in the new business. Medical records are sparse, though hospital records indicate admissions are steady with a slight increase. Slightly higher numbers in the death records, too, but no details indicating disease one way or the other. If the Elders were aware that anyone beyond their own ranks had contracted an unusual disease or manifested unusual symptoms, they either didn’t know or didn’t care.

The Riches of Vine Grow 

Now in those days the Elders were known about town as men who dressed fashionably and were given to verbose affectations of speech. For Vine’s economy was primarily agricultural, and its people humble servants of the Lord. Each lived simply and according to their own means. The Elders, however, thanks in part to the blessings of God’s wealth, as well as education gained from travel, were known more for aesthetics, rather than as ascetics. 

Alyosius Wilkinson III, like his father and grandfather, a fiery presence, a man who had a lemon glazed and affixed to the top of his walking-cane. He was a leader of hunts, whether for game or for elements of evil in potential need of stamping out. James Sherman III, like others in his line, was a practical man, a man of cold logic—but with a weakness for vanity. His was the only voice to raise the possibility of a connection between citrus and the disease, yet he proudly adorned lapels and brooches with glazed orange rinds. Franklin Davies III, a somewhat ostentatious and boisterous spirit, was one of two Elders (the other being Jonathan Seiver III, whose sin was rumored to be a weakness for exploring the Satanic) who wore jewelry, as a woman (or even a witch) might: glazed lime rinds wrapping beads in his hair, adorning rings and bracelets, hanging on necklaces he wore loudly over his shirt. 

Thus were the Elders of Vine blessed by the Lord with riches, though now the Elders of Vine were vain men. 

The Riches of The Citrus Industry and Blind Harv Williams

As the citrus industry flourished, thus it was that many previously unheard of technological elements were introduced to Vine: Seth Ruth III, not yet an Elder, became the first citizen of Vine to own a car. Franklin Davies II established the first newspaper, The Vine Bulletin. Radio and record players were slowly introduced, legend has it by Blind Harv Williams.

Editor’s note: primary sources are extremely difficult to find on Blind Harv Williams, a Black son of freed slaves who is believed by some to be the first blues guitar player in Tennessee. Some legends say he was born in the east and wandered his way west until he found Memphis. Others say he came up from Alabama or Georgia, wandering up from Chattanooga through Nashville then Memphis. Others hold that he ultimately disappeared in the Appalachian mountains. Likely some sort of ascension into Heaven in the mountains, perhaps on Prophet’s Bald. If I can find better sources, I will include a more fleshed-out legend of Blind Harv Williams in this tome.

To those who believe he came to Vine, Blind Harv Williams was the first to play guitar in Gentleman Jim’s—before that, it is said that music arose from the Earth and could only be heard before a person took their first sip of drink—and he spawned generations of imitators that play on to this day. So numerous are aspiring guitars of Gentleman Jim’s that an hour does not pass where the shallow stage is not occupied.

An accidental side effect of Blind Harv Williams (or his imitators) lighting up Gentleman Jim’s with music is that Gentleman Jim’s became a hotspot for citrus consumption. Today, the people of Vine only drink whiskey or beer, but in those days, cocktails like gin and tonic (with lime wedge), whiskey lemonade (with lemon wedge), the screwdriver (vodka and orange juice, with orange wedge) were wildly popular. It is likely that Gentleman Jim’s was the first place that the average Vine citizen had citrus. 

The Extravagance of Edgar S. MacLeod, Jr.

Now it was in those days—as always has been—that all who called Vine home lived humbly as servants of the Lord. But as is the case with all societies, stratification naturally occurred. Aside from the Elders and the people of Vine, there were men who had made themselves rich in industry. One such man, Edgar S. MacLeod, grew very rich in coal mining, and did pass his business onto his son, Edgar S. MacLeod, Jr., who was known as a man who appreciated extravagance, and who threw lavish and exclusive parties. 

At these parties the elite of Vine did enjoy food and drink: waiters carrying trays of assorted citrus slices, champagne garnished with slices of orange rind, lemon tarts, and lime pudding. Edgar S. MacLeod, Jr.’s estate was sprawling, with a garden of roses and honeysuckles leading to a personal lemon grove in the back. On the third floor balcony a string quartet spilled their melodies over the grounds. And the elite of Vine did arrive in finery! Tuxedos and dresses fashionably adorned with the colors and accoutrement of citrus: bright yellow dresses, green pocket squares roughly patterned to evoke the skin of lime, orange sashes made of fine silk. 

The Death of An Elder At One Of Edgar S. MacLeod’s Parties

Now it was at one such party, while the string quartet was playing Brahms’ Quartet in C Minor, that it became apparent to guests that something was beginning to go horribly wrong. One imagines a plague moving through the ranks of the elite of Vine like an amorphous invisible mist going more opaque with each moment. Lucinda Smith reported a deep purple as though intense bruising occurring under her fingernails and spreading to her wrists. Kellan Jackson reported an urgent itchiness in his scalp, leading to clumps of hair falling to the floor. Jefferson Lewis was overcome with a delirium and passed out on a pile of fallen lemons in the grove. 

No sources indicate the spreading of the virus causing a panic. Champagne and citrus flowed at these parties, and Edgar S. MacLeod’s journals do not indicate he remembers anything out of the ordinary. “Artemis Murray had drunk so much he drove home on two flat tires. The fool…myself, a headache. Orange juice in the morning.”

This calmness from Edgar S. MacLeod, Jr. betrays his ignorance. All had not been well at that party, a fact that was diligently concealed from Edgar S. MacLeod, Jr. and his guests. 

From the journals of Alyosius Wilkinson III: “Seth Ruth II had been off-balance all night, presenting a more frail and mentally unpresent countenance than even his advanced age would suggest appropriate. It was near 11 o’clock when he beseeched Franklin Davies III and myself to go into the library with him, that he might confide something in us. What message he desired to convey never reached our ears, for his lips began to pull back from his mouth, and his entire face followed by the rest of his body began to crumple and rot before our very eyes. His soul had met the Lord before his body hit the floor. Franklin shrouded the body while I endeavored to enlist the help of Lysander Adams III and Seth Ruth III to move the poor wretch out of the house without causing a panic. After relocating the body to the Church of Vine and care of Preacher Robert, the three of us initiated Seth Ruth III as an Elder.”

The Elders Resolve Not To Cause A Panic 

From the journals of Franklin Davies III: “Thus did we determine that whilst it was indeed likely Seth Ruth II passed on due to some previously unseen complications with the illness some of us Elders had been struggling with since the introduction of citrus to Vine, far too much was a stake and there would be far too dire consequences if the citrus industry were to be halted or even paused. We fasted and prayed for seven days, and remained confident that the Lord our God would reward our faith.”

Indications of A Wider Outbreak To Come 

Hospital records in Vine indicate a 60% increase in admissions throughout the summer of 1924. Death records show a 10% increase in deaths in Vine in 1923 through the early months of 1924, the first increase in the death rate in more than a decade. Records from the Church of Vine show five sermons given on the evils of witchcraft from March 1924 – September 1924, without significant gaps in the record both immediately before and after those dates. Citrus industry profits continued on a steady upward trajectory. 

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