Pestilence is much like you or I. One of four brothers, he was born to a loving mother and father. Well, he wasn’t born to a mother per se, but he was certainly born to a Father. A Father with a capital ‘F,’ as He will attest, for His love is all. As this deity proclaims himself to be the creator of all things, He created Pestilence and his brothers, all three of them brought to being as punishments from God. Together, these brothers form a Divine Retribution from a deity believing that, inevitably, the time will come where He must lay the ever loving smack down upon his mortal creations.
Those mortal creations include both you and I; just so we’re absolutely clear.
So, maybe Pestilence isn’t that much like you or I, after all. Unlike us, he isn’t burdened with mortality; he’s far older than anybody walking the Earth today, a fact that has a tendency to give one a slight superiority complex. Nor is Pestilence the result of an exceptional sperm that raced ahead of the pack to triumphantly burst its way inside an ovary; he’s an intermingling of DNA, nor anything quite as mundane as any living creature.
Where we are mortal, Pestilence is immortal. Regardless of that preceding ‘im,’ this spectre has spent his entire existence with concerns that mirror many of our own. He must navigate a dysfunctional family, for instance. He has to vie for his Father’s love and attention. He has siblings he competes with. Like many of us, he has been indoctrinated into the family business, an outfit colloquially known as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Perhaps you have heard of them; they are fairly widely renowned. And like many mortals feeling strangled by the expectations of their family, Pestilence would simply like to be true to himself.
His eldest brother’s name is Death. As the most famous of the Horsemen, he has always cast a long shadow. This shadow isn’t only cast over Pestilence, though, their other two brothers, Famine and War, also exist within it. Death’s fame isn’t the result of any innate talent, but like Kardashians and social media influencers, he managed to somehow tap into the zeitgeist at the right time. Granted, Death tapped into this zeitgeist at the very beginning of time, when it soon became abundantly clear that after life comes death. Us mere mortals lack that vital ‘im’ to keep us going through the ages, after all.
If famine goes on long enough, it brings a mortal’s life to an end. Wars bring mortal lives to an end en masse. And if somebody falls ill, and it is not successfully treated, that somebody’s life draws to a close. As those lives end, it results in their deaths. So when wars kill people, when famine kills people, it is Death who comes in. No matter the number of infectious diseases Pestilence has found himself responsible for, no matter how many plagues he foisted upon us mere mortals, whenever they result in the loss of life, it is Death who gets the credit; it is Death who takes the glory that rightfully, Pestilence would say, belongs to him.
For instance, Pestilence’s smallpox epidemics ended two million lives in Japan between 735 and 737 AD. Again, in 1520 AD, this time in Mexico, smallpox ended another seven million lives. People remember the number of deaths, giving Death all the credit. When the cocoliztli epidemics flooded Mexico in the sixteenth century, destroying over fifteen million lives, Death reaped not just the souls, but also the rewards. The bubonic plague reared its head a number of times between the fourth and twentieth centuries, and each one of those lives lost was yet another soul for Death.
Granted, as you lack that vital ‘im,’ you may not remember those times when Pestilence was hard at work. You may be old enough to remember the 1980s, though, when the spectre’s latest disease swept across this globe on which we live. It was the AIDS epidemic, and whose face was plastered across the media in all those scare campaigns? If you’re too young to remember, please allow me to give you a hint: it wasn’t Pestilence’s.
It was Death’s. That figure cloaked in black, his skull peering out from under his hood, his bony fingers wrapped around a scythe as he stares at you grimly, preparing to reap your soul.
Death is who you need to fear. Not War as people throw their lives away over the pettiest of squabbles, not Famine as all the resources go to feed the already fat, and not Pestilence whose diseases will cause you to waste away. It is always Death. These three punishments of God all work exceedingly hard, yet this work is always credited to the eldest brother. To be certain, these Horsemen are all brothers and with that comes familial love. But familial love is not always enough to prevent three of those brothers being the perennial Jan Bradys of their family.
For his part, though, all Death did throughout the ages was the job he was given. Ever the consummate professional, he does a fine job. Despite the envy of some, he never asked to be the Grim Reaper—indeed, for all his reaping, as anybody who has met him can tell you, this title is somewhat of a misnomer. “Pestilence, buddy,” he would say. “You’re doing a great job!”
As little as this did to turn Pestilence’s mood around, the spectre continued. “I can see how hard you’re working, laying all the groundwork,” he’d tell him. Like, you do such a bang-up job that you’re keeping me super busy. Like, I never get a break because of all your effort, man.”
Famine wasn’t too concerned about who takes the credit for his work. No, as long as he got to watch our fellow mortals starve, he was content. “Look at them, so hungry… The pain their stomachs cause while eating themselves, desperation for nutrition…”
War, too, was less worried about Death getting his credit. He was more focused on playing, and playing groups of people against each other was a surefire way to give him a mighty belly laugh. “Hah! Look at humanity, so desperate for power that they’ll destroy each other for it!”
“Pestilence,” Death would say, “You have a beautiful face; take it from someone who would love a face on this skull. It pains my heart to see it frowning all the time.”
“You don’t have a heart either,” Pestilence would glower in return.
While many people think a drive for power is purely a human instinct, it isn’t. The Princes of Hell were once angels, and it was their lust for power which led to their eternal damnation. War, as much as he had fun manipulating us mortals, would readily admit to the charge this gave his ego. So it is perhaps natural that Pestilence craved the power given to Death. Whether you be human, demon or spectral punishment, take this as your timely reminder that you were created in the image of a deity so obsessed with his own power, He insists on capitalising “He,” “Him” and “His.”