Anna avoids Aphra, telling herself there is nothing she can do and feeling as if interaction with her stepmother might drive her insane as well. Besides, she has a lot to think about – she realizes that for the first time in a year, they have gone several weeks without any deaths. Mompellion preaches hopefully about the resurrection, and Andrew Merrick returns from his self-imposed exile to his cottage.
Anna and the other townspeople are becoming cautiously optimistic – but Aphra’s unresolved presence is an ominous sign, suggesting that the unsettling, primal forces unleashed by the plague won’t disappear quietly.
Still, Anna says it’s hard for people to “rejoice” at the end of the plague. Only a third of the population is left, and everyone is haunted by the memory of dead friends and family. Moreover, with so few able-bodied citizens, everyone left alive is doing the work of two or three people.
Besides crazy behavior like Aphra’s, it’s also hard to move past the enormous death toll. In order to rebuild the community, they need to reinstate the norms and practices from before the plague, but they can’t do that when such a large swath of the population is missing.
Mompellion and Elinor have a rare argument. Elinor wants to hold a service of formal thanksgiving for Eyam’s deliverance, and end the quarantine, so that people who have lost their entire families can seek out their kin in other towns and start life over. Mompellion believes this is premature, and that all their sacrifice will be nothing if new plague cases occur and spread to other villages. Elinor tells him not to wait to long, since “not everyone is made as firm of purpose as you.” Anna catches her crying in the library.
Mompellion makes a rare admission that he considers himself not only a spiritual guide but a political leader, responsible for the worldly fate of Eyam and the surrounding village. By now, the reader knows religious ideas and developments are inextricably linked to sociopolitical issues, but this is Mompellion’s first hint that he too is cognizant of this fact.
A few weeks later, in August, Mompellion holds the Thanksgiving service in the Cucklett Delf. He and Elinor wear all white and carry flowers. But as Mompellion begins to pray, Aphra runs shrieking into the field, waving the knife that had impaled Josiah and caused his death, and carrying Faith’s maggot-infested remains. She calls Mompellion’s name and he alone is brave enough to confront her, grabbing her and trying to soothe her and remove the knife from her hand. Elinor runs to his aid, and strokes Aphra’s face.
Aphra’s use of the knife from Josiah’s punishment shows her lingering resentment over the manner of his death. Josiah’s punishment was a prime example of justice gone wrong. Rather than resolving a crime and allowing the community to move past it, it perpetuated resentment and, in fact, incited Aphra to further criminal behavior.
In the crush, Faith’s skull breaks away from her body and rolls on the grass. Mompellion is startled and releases Aphra, who is roused to new anger. She slashes Elinor’s throat, killing her. Then she plunges it into her own chest and falls to the ground, kissing Faith’s skull with “exquisite tenderness” before she dies.
Elinor’s murder is fundamentally senseless, as she had nothing to do with Aphra’s grievances, and it isn’t even clear whether Aphra meant to kill her. The plague makes life seem meaningless not just through the deaths inflicted through the disease but through the complete psychological breakdown it catalyzes in characters like Aphra. Still, it’s important that despite her insanity Aphra retains shreds of the values that used to define her. Her gesture towards Faith’s skull shows the maternal love that links her to characters like Anna, despite her monstrous actions.