When weakened by sickness, our reason can take flight; abandoning us to terrors we share with ancient ancestors whose fears stemmed, sometimes, from impossible illnesses.
A fear of the petrification of our flesh, either as a curse or as a punishment, predates the written word; let alone an understanding of the science by which we can now describe the ossification of bone and tissue. The roots of this phobia are debatable, disputable, but there is evidence to support a story coming out of Sar-i Sang, Afghanistan, that this nightmare might be more justified than we would hope. Still famous for its ancient mines, from which the world’s finest lapis lazuli was already being extracted thousands and thousands of years ago, Sar-i Sang was once almost destroyed by a plague. This, thankfully contained, sickness - known as Lapislode Petrification - turned its victims’ circulatory systems into a network of inflexible lapis arteries and veins, slowly paralysing them before they died.
With lapis lazuli prized for its bright blue colour, the lazurite being a vital component in the creation of an ultramarine dyes, and the attendant value it was given, it was always in demand. New tunnels, new shafts to mine, were being cut and carved out regularly, with the area becoming a hive of underground activity as more and more people came to seek their fortune in the laborious work of breaking, sorting and transporting precious minerals. There was little organisation to the work, no overall plan for the allocation of which areas someone could mine and which belonged to another person, and new seams were being opened up every few days. As a result of these tangled claims and provenances, the source of the Lapislode Petrification was extremely difficult to trace, even once its cause had been discovered.
Some - rather callously - might perhaps even say that discovery is a too-deliberate term for the efforts that took place to stem the spread of the disease, owing as much as they did to luck and guesswork. Still, even without a rigorous scientific method the outbreak was eventually contained, sparing the whole region, maybe the whole continent, from an epidemic of the suffering and torturous deaths that Sar-i Sang suffered. Nonetheless, if it weren’t for the clear visual connection between the lapis that was being mined and the onset and spread of the fever, then there might have been many more deaths. It began with a single case; a man who had worked the mines for several years began to find his extremities too stiff to bend. This might not have been unusual, given the nature of his labours, except for the blue discolouration spreading underneath his skin.
It took nearly a month for the lapis lazuli to make its way from the hands across the man’s chest, creeping through the vascular tissue until it had all been replaced by the shining blue stone. It would have been a mercy if it had killed him outright, but somehow he lived, even as his body grew heavier and heavier, wracked by the hallucinations of fever until one of the other workers spared him any more suffering. Most assumed, understandably, that it might have been a cumulative effect; years of working underground, hands deep in the earth and breaths full of dust and dirt, but the cases that followed soon after started to take people almost indiscriminately, without apparent connection to how closely they worked with the lapis. The Lapislode Petrification took some quicker than others, but the fear of it made its way through the region at an ever-increasing pace.
Although the underlying mechanisms and infectious vectors of the Lapislode Petrification were as mysterious to the people of Sar-i Sang as they remain to this day - thanks in no small part to their successful efforts to wipe the sickness out - its relationship to the lapis lazuli was plain and undeniable. Those who were afflicted with the condition were moved a short distance away from the mines, quarantined, and attended to by those brave enough to be near them and, in some cases no doubt, those who were too scared to go back into earth to continue digging. With their voices being one of the last things that the Lapislode Petrification took, the sufferers talked to their carergivers and each other. As they talked and listened, one of the women began to piece together a likely sequence of how the sickness had proliferated.
At first her story, which pointed to a rich vein of lapis lazuli which had been exposed a few months earlier, was ignored - to lose that particular mine would have cost the workers a lot of money - but as more people who mined there or handled the tainted lapis got sick it became a moot point. Only the desperate would risk going underground there, and soon they were too sick to work. Finally, it was agreed that that mineshaft would be filled in, its entranced collapsed to prevent anyone from digging there again. Despite there being no proven cases where Lapislode Petrification had passed from one person to another, the prevailing fear also led to another, crueller decision: Those who had not yet completely succumbed to their sickness - were walked, or carried, down into the darkness to be buried alive - Side by side with the corpses of those who had already died.
Lapis lazuli is still mined in Sar-i Sang, but centuries of colonialist-incited war in Afghanistan has kept the ongoing operations limited and technologically unsophisticated. Somewhere underground, potentially perilously close to being discovered, there is a crypt filled with the petrified dead: We have no idea what caused the Lapislode Petrification, how it spread, or whether its effects were quite so severe and terrible as the histories suggest. The only way to be sure would be to locate and recover the bodies from the abandoned mineshaft, to study them and the minerals in the rockface. Without proper precautions, even with them if the sickness is passed on a way we do not understand and cannot stop, this might lead to another outbreak; and there are those with long memories and the will and power to see any such attempts fail.
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