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Arts & Entertainment

Cosplaying the Plague

As we emerged from the pandemic, it only made sense to go to the Scarborough Renaissance Festival.

The rain feels biblical. We try to wait it out, but it goes on for days and days. In fact, our first attempt to go to the Scarborough Renaissance Festival was thwarted by a tornado warning that closed the place early. Fair enough, I thought. I don’t want to get swept up Dorothy-style while dressed as a wench—too undignified. Still, I had to make the festival work even if it meant raincoats and trudging through mud up to our shins; I had promised.

Every year I take my son, Townes, and his friend Avonlea to Scarborough. In 2020, much like it had everything else, COVID prohibited our annual rite of face painting and joust watching. It was one small but heartbreaking moment in a year of heartbreaks. So this May, when the CDC said we could safely go to outside events, we headed south to Waxahachie.

“You know,” I say, trying to make the rain seem fun to the two 10-year-olds in the backseat, “the English Renaissance would have been super muddy anyway and probably pretty stinky.” The kids ignore me, debating what they will dress up as when we arrive. Avonlea wants to be a princess; Townes, a ninja.

“Mom,” he exclaims, “what about my galoshes!? Ninjas don’t wear galoshes.”

“Maybe ninjas wore galoshes back then?” I counter.

“Mom!” He stretches the moniker into two syllables to adequately express how annoying I am. I’m tempted to tell him that the very existence of ninjas in the English Renaissance reeks of historical inaccuracy, but instead I hum along to a Taylor Swift song the kids requested.

Scarborough has been around for ages. My parents took me as a kid, and in high school, my friends and I went. Once, we forgot where we had parked and spent hours methodically plodding up and down rows looking for the dusty red of my Mitsubishi Mirage, which, true to its name, finally appeared as miraculously as the Holy Grail. When my son was old enough to hoof it across the festival grounds, I bought him wooden swords decorated in hand-painted flames and, once, a geode that he broke in half on a mini-guillotine. He presented the crystal to me as if it were worthy of the Gems and Minerals Hall in the Perot Museum. We’re making memories, I thought, putting it in my purse for safekeeping. We both forgot about it 10 minutes later. I found it while digging around for lipstick the next week.  

Officially set during the reign of Henry VIII, the Scarborough Renaissance Festival consists of a re-created 16th-century English village complete with lords and ladies. I’ve always loved that era of history—the six wives (divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived), the rumor of Boleyn’s 11th finger (“evidence” she was a witch), the palace intrigue (Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More). Henry VIII’s rule presents the amateur historian with an endless trove of mystery, Machiavellian characters, and a pandemic of its very own—the sweating sickness. In my (admittedly shallow) research, I discovered that this illness remains a mystery to historians and modern doctors. Yet it wreaked havoc on Tudor England for nearly 70 years. With an estimated mortality rate of 30 to 50 percent, a person could fall sick and die within 24 hours. In fact, some experts believe Henry’s older brother, Arthur—the firstborn and the rightful king—died of the sweating sickness, leaving Henry to become the stuff of legend: books, movies, and even a deliciously tawdry TV show on Showtime.

I try to fill the kids in on this history on the drive, lecturing them on Henry’s break from the Catholic Church, the wives, the plague.

“Wait,” my son says. “They had COVID, too?”

“Not COVID but another pandemic.”

“Did they have to quarantine?” he asks.

“I think so. Tell you what, let’s make it a goal to find King Henry and ask him what he did,” I reply, wondering if I’m encouraging light stalking rather than a love of British history. Truth is, I have some questions that demand answers.

I find myself reassuring my son, “This is almost over.” “This” being COVID, isolation, anxiety. But who knows? My family was extraordinarily lucky. We didn’t lose anyone, but we did see it affect those around us. My close college friend’s father died early in the pandemic; we sat shiva on Zoom, unable to fly out and comfort her in person. My own father lost his childhood best friend to COVID, a former Dallas cop who looked exactly like J.R. from Dallas; he even wore a bolo tie. I know several COVID long-haulers, beset with an exhaustion they can’t seem to shake. Even now, as I drive my son and his friend to cosplay normal at Scarborough, COVID continues to infect people in Dallas. I desperately want to know whether I am lying to my kid. Is COVID almost over, and if so, what happens next? A fake Henry VIII seems as good a person to ask as anyone.

When we arrive, my car chugs through the muddy parking lot until we alight on a small patch of grass. In the drizzle, the kids grumble as I spray them with Off. They cannot wait to don their costumes, despite the umbrellas, galoshes, and face masks—Avonlea’s adorned with pictures of Dumbo, my son’s with images of astronauts. I put on my mask, too, plain gray, even though I feel silly. I’m armed with two doses of Pfizer’s vaccine but can’t quite figure out the etiquette of mask wearing in public spaces. I promise the kids that as soon as we get tickets, costumes will be the next stop.

I tell friends I go to Scarborough for the kids, dressing up to humor them. It’s a lie. I am here to nerd out with my fellow geeks. Concert posters from hipster bands may decorate my walls, and I wear my Converse with pride, but I’ve always had a dorky streak. I used to devour fantasy novels, and though I never played Dungeons & Dragons, it’s mostly because no one ever invited me. So when we arrive at the costume booth to find not a patient lady willing to tie my rental corset but a sign with the silhouette of a rat announcing that the costume shop is closed due to plague, I’m not sure who is more disappointed: me or the children. Of course, it makes sense. The close proximity of the fitters and the shared clothes perhaps harboring the virus make it risky to rent out costumes. Still, I’m bummed. I briefly consider dropping hundreds of dollars on my own costume at one of the shops but figure it’ll just get destroyed by the mud and wisely decide against it.

I comfort the kids by promising them each a toy and then comfort myself with a gyro wrapped in aluminum foil. We wander through the grounds in search of rides, which we quickly find. While the kids get fantastically dizzy spinning in a barrel hung on rope, I look around. Despite the cool rain and slick mud, families seem to be enjoying themselves. Yet wandering from ride to ride, admiring kilts and fairy wings, buying the kids little rubber dragons that wrap around their wrists, I can’t quite shake a feeling of sadness. Where there should be joy at this little adventure, there is a latent sense of dread. I’m not sure if it is the rain or the shuttered shops with signs that read “closed due to plague” or just the purgatory of being partially in and partially out of a pandemic.

I see a man dressed as a plague doctor, the black robes and leather mask with the long nose. “Can I take a picture?” I ask. “You know, to remember visiting the plague times during an actual plague time?”

He nods and the kids walk over, a bit hesitant. In the photo, he looks menacingly at them, as if he’s COVID incarnate—a visual metaphor of my fear the entirety of last year. I put my phone away just as a person in an enormous inflatable squid costume passes by. I’m not sure how cephalopods jibe with the English Renaissance, but if squid costumes are the new normal, I’m definitely here for it.

After a few hours at Scarborough, the only part of the kids not covered in mud is their face masks. They wear them every day for school, and I have to imagine they’re used to them by now. Watching Townes and Avonlea hand over cash to swing in a wooden boat, I wonder what they’ll remember of the pandemic. Will they remember sheltering in place whenever they smell hand sanitizer, the way my mind floats back to my high school boyfriend when I catch a whiff of Drakkar Noir? What awaits all of us when this is over? What, if anything, will we have learned?

What I do know is that after the sweating sickness came plays by Shakespeare and Marlowe. After the Spanish flu came novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nella Larsen. Maybe the next 10 years will yield our own sort of renaissance. I certainly hope so.

I never get to ask the king what to expect post-pandemic. We can never find him. Though maybe I just didn’t know what I was looking for. I guess it tracks; those who can afford to be away from the plague-ridden crowds get away from the plague-ridden crowds (see Jeff Bezos with his yacht’s yacht or the newly reunited Bennifer in their Montana chalet).

As we make our way to the exits, I pass a woman dressed all in red with a fabulous red-jeweled mask who clearly is one of the official Scarborough actors.

“Hello, m’lady,” she says, nodding at me.

“Hi,” I say. Then, slightly embarrassed, I add, “Um, I have a question for you. What did the king do during the sweating sickness?”

“He quarantined, love, like the rest of us,” she replies, smiling at Townes and Avonlea fighting with their newly purchased toy swords.

“Do you know what came in the years after the plague? Like what happens next?” I ask hopefully.

She shrugs, an unlikely oracle turning to meet her fellow royalty.

“Just enjoy!” she says as she walks away.


Write to [email protected]. This story originally appeared in the July issue of D Magazine.

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