Summary of “The Poppies of Lethe”
Anna is struck by the sadness of her empty house. She pulls out the stolen phial of poppy and mixes it with honey in order to have one night of happiness. She dreams about her children and beautiful scenery, and she wakes up feeling refreshed. Her happiness is broken, though, when she steps outside and remembers what is happening in the village. Following a sad day when a number of Anna’s close friends die, she takes the last of the poppy resin. The next morning, she is saddened by the fact that she has used all the poppy. She then remembers that the Gowdies used poppy as a sedative and ventures to their house to steal more.
On her way, Anna passes by the Talbots' house. When he noticed his sores, Richard Talbot demanded that his wife Kate use a searing-hot poker to burn the sores off his body. His skin burned and festered for days, as Anna discovers when she stops by their home. Anna helps around the house in an attempt to alleviate the stress of Kate’s pregnancy; however, she notices Kate using a charm on her husband. Anna asks where Kate found the sacrilegious charm, and Kate admits that she bought if from Anys Gowdie’s ghost. Anna is shocked at this disclosure: she reprimands Kate and begs her not to use witchcraft again.
Anna reaches the Gowdies' cottage and finds Elinor already there. Elinor has been searching for herbs and mixtures that might be help to cure the plague. Anna, feeling bad about stealing Elinor’s poppy, admits to the sin. Elinor then replies that she knows Anna took it and understands why Anna wanted to use poppy to escape reality. Elinor then recounts the story of her childhood to Anna.
When Elinor was a young girl, she was extremely privileged. At fourteen, she fell in love with a twenty-year-old man who courted her in return. Against her family’s wishes, she ran away to elope with this persistent suitor. However, he mentioned that they should go to London before getting married. Once in the city, the two began sleeping together before marriage. After a few weeks, Elinor realized that he wasn’t interested in marrying her. By that time, though, she was already pregnant with his child. Her family found her and brought her back to their home.
Elinor’s shame drove her to perform an abortion by sticking a hot poker inside to kill the baby. She nearly died and completely lost the ability to bear children. It was at this time that she became addicted to poppy. Michael was her father’s ward, and Elinor admits that his presence and influence were crucial to her happiness. He offered her his friendship and then his love, and the two became married despite Elinor's former sins.
After Elinor’s teary confession, Anna and Elinor begin to search for more herbs and possibly for books that would instruct them in how to combat the plague.
Summary of “Among Those That Go Down to the Pit”
Anna and Elinor return to the village and notice that Michael is digging graves; the previous digger had died while at work. Anna and Michael then go to Jakob Merrill’s house. Jakob took in Brand months ago, and now Jakob wants to leave his house and his children’s well-being in Brand’s care.
In a moment of desperation, Anna goes to Josiah and bribes him to become the new gravedigger. Her main hope is that he will make enough money to feed her younger half siblings.
Michael decides to close the church, as bringing the villagers so close together could spread the contagion. He announces that the villagers will meet at Cucklett Delf instead. He also announces that the cemetery is overcrowded: the dead will have to be buried on their own property. The villagers are distraught at this last decision. Then, in a moment of physical weakness, Michael collapses. Thomas Stanley takes Michael’s place at the pulpit and reassures the villagers that Michael’s advice is for the best.
A young girl named Merry Wickford, who is a Quaker, is now an orphan and has no living siblings due to the ravages of the plague. Her family owns a mine called the Burning Drake, which her father found when he saw a burning duck diving from the sky. He discovered ore that same day, and he was subsequently able to provide for his family. However, due to mining laws, a mine is required to provide a certain amount of ore every few weeks in order for the owner to keep it.
Anna knows that Merry will need to provide ore to the mining council in order to keep her family’s mine. She enlists Elinor to help her go down and mine. At first, the women spend hours attempting to mine using picks. They are too weak, though, and they come up without any ore. Anna then suggests that they use a makeshift explosive to loosen the ore, and she volunteers to detonate the blast. Yet she is terrified because Sam died in similar circumstances.
Anna sets off the blast and suddenly realizes that the blast was too hard. The ore starts coming down around her, sealing her in. She thinks that she is going to die. Luckily, both Elinor and Merry stay near the mine and hear the rocks crumbling. They pull Anna out and immediately go to the Barmester to measure Merry’s ore. The Barmester declares that Merry has enough ore to keep her mine. Anna goes to sleep that night happy because she feels as though the day has ended on a good note for once.
Summary of “The Body of the Mine”
After the mining incident, Anna is incredibly sore and hardly leaves her house for days. Over that time, though, she hears rumors that Josiah is using his new grave digging business as a form of extortion. He demands high prices for his services and is careless when it comes to contagion. She eventually sees her father, who cheerfully thanks her for providing him with this opportunity. When she reprimands him for being greedy, he doesn’t respond.
Days later, Anna and Michael go to Christopher Unwin. Christopher is the last of his family but appears to be successfully battling the plague. Once the two reach his home, they see Josiah out in a nearby field digging a hole, even though Christopher isn’t dead. Anna realizes that her father means to bury Christopher before anyone knows he is dead so that Josiah can have first dibs on Christopher’s possessions. Michael, realizing this as well, goes and fights with Josiah.
Christopher soon has an appetite, thanks to Elinor and Anna’s medicinal tactics. Anna and Michael leave him to get better. The next day, Anna finds Christopher covered in mud and blood. He says that he woke up to find Josiah hitting him with a shovel, stealing his clothes off his body, and burying him alive. Christopher was fortunate enough to dig his way out of his premature grave. The villagers are already angry at Josiah’s extortion tactics, and this latest scheme is the last straw.
Soon after, Anna is summoned to appear at her father’s trial. Anna reluctantly goes and listens to her father plead guilty to theft and robbery. Josiah looks to Anna, waiting for her to intervene on his behalf, but she does not speak for him. He is tried and found guilty, and his punishment is to have his hands impaled by knives beside the Unwin mine. Anna knows that, with this form of punishment, it is customary for the guilty man’s family to come remove the knives from the man’s hands. She assumes that Aphra will do so despite the storm that has suddenly appeared over the town.
Three days later, Aphra appears at Anna’s house enraged and distraught, looking for Josiah. Anna realizes that Aphra did not go to save Josiah. Aphra screams at Anna, saying that her three sons all contracted and died of the plague at the same time. The two women run to the Unwin mine and find Josiah’s corpse. Aphra pulls the knives out of his hands, saving one and cutting off locks of his hair. They bury him under a pile of rocks, and Aphra fashions a manikin to mark Josiah’s grave.
Anna discovers how happy she can be during this trying time when she takes the poppy mixture. She has to deal with death multiple times every day, and getting to slip into soft dreams where she is surrounded by family is a welcome escape. After Elinor tells her about the dangers of being addicted to poppy, Anna changes this practice but is challenged to find new sources of solace. She can’t see an end in sight, and she needs to know that there is a way out.
During “Wide Green Prison,” Anna called upon Anys to help guide her through the delivery of a child. She then saw Anys’s spirit telling her how to perform midwife duties. When Kate mentions to Anna that she saw Anys and that Anys gave her a charm, Anna is undoubtedly shocked. She doesn’t believe in ghosts, and she thinks that someone in the town was pretending to be Anys. However, that Kate sees Anys raises the possibility that Anys, in some form, is returning in spirit.
Elinor’s heartbreaking story explains much about her childhood and about her kindly personality. Not the stereotypical pastor’s wife, she is a conflicted yet persevering woman whom Brooks has given an important backstory. When she was a young fourteen-year-old girl, the emotional Elinor was exploited by an older man; getting pregnant and performing an abortion on herself made her even more vulnerable. Michael gave her a shoulder to lean on, and she became dependent on him. At the same time, Elinor is able to forgive people easily, as is made clear when she talks to Anna about stealing her poppy. She understands how easy it is to go down a wayward path, so it is important for everyone to receive the same forgiveness that she was fortunate enough to receive.
Anna putting herself in peril to mine the ore for Merry is a significant gesture; after all, Anna already had fears related to Sam's demise, but mining for Merry shows that Anna is committed to making the future better for someone. When she blows up the mineral deposit as a last resort, Anna envisions her two children for the first time in months. She is about to succumb to death, but this moment of clarity helps her make it through.
Josiah’s corrupt business practices come as no surprise to Anna, even though she hates that he went so far with his schemes. However, Anna cannot connect with him on any level. After she realizes that her father is trying to bury Christopher Unwin alive, it becomes impossible for her to see any good in him. This is why she doesn’t want to go to his trial. Anna knows that she won’t be able to stand up for him, and she doesn’t want to face a situation that pits her against her own family.
Aphra, however, truly loves her husband. She knows how to handle him to the extent that he can be handled, and she is devastated when he is gone; she naturally blames Anna for not going to save Josiah. But as soon as she sees her husband’s corpse, she turns off her emotions and does what is necessary.
Anna notices that Aphra is using non-Christian superstitious at Josiah’s makeshift funeral. Aphra grabs a lock of Josiah’s hair as well as one of the knives that eventually killed her husband. Her blessings over Josiah’s body as well as the manikins aren’t familiar to Anna. It is likely that Aphra uses superstition as a way to cope with the plague, and with Josiah’s death.