Messina, Autumn 1347
Arturo ventured through the forest behind Widow Bromante’s cottage to reach Fellicci’s garden plot. Caffa, as his father was called, had warned him against leaving the house and to avoid exchanges with anyone. Arturo combed through a labyrinth of weeds in Fellicci’s garden and gathered a bit of saffron and bol armeniac for a poultice. His mother had taught him that these herbs ward off illness, but he hadn’t used his healing skills since learning to work the fields with the peasants. Fashioning herbal remedies was women’s work. Yet he couldn’t argue against the logic that if there is no woman to do the work, it still must be done.
Arturo wandered through the cool shadow of the forest, deserted except for a random newt and a dozen rodents. He heard sharp cracking sounds moving towards him and he fell to his knees behind a defunct well. No one would bother to come near this well that was closed off to keep the invisible enemies from infiltrating the city further. The evil was in the air, like a spirit, ethereal. Arturo’s father said, “Sickness travels on the winds and water unseen until it enters and interrupts the body’s humours.”
The death cart passed him, snapping saplings and dead branches beneath it. One leg was draped over the edge of the tired death cart. The small foot dragged along rocks and decaying leaves. Arturo held his breath and buried his face in his hands. Still, he could smell the bilious odor of cramped bodies packed tightly as stones in a wall.
He followed the path that Caffa plowed a few days ago. It was strange to see Caffa laboring in the heat. Of the three house servants, the gardner, and the cook Caffa employed two had died, while the others had gone home to care for their own sick families. Caffa didn’t wish to leave the city as other prosperous families had. He claimed it would do no good. Caffa and Arturo managed the upkeep of the villa themselves, but Arturo could see it was slowly perishing under their distracted care. Vegetables rotted in the garden and the mules and ox that remained were thin with neglect. Arturo could hear Tomas, Maris, and others wailing in the hut close by their villa. Even when Arturo shut his eyes he saw contorted bodies, purple with pustules. He imagined they held each other like family would.
On the occasion that Arturo met a neighbor at the market or saw a friend toiling in the fields, they discussed the popular theories for Messina’s staggering death toll. The elders claimed to know the reason half of the city was dead, because knowledge offered the possibility of escaping. Widow Bromante believed that the city was being punished for its sinfulness and debauchery, while Magistrate Giorgio Ricciolino declared with passion that the illness was brought by the Chinese merchant ships. As it was, the residents of Messina were obtuse, panicked livestock rounded up for the slaughter.
Arturo’s mother had already succumbed to the buboes and the torment that followed, so Arturo was anxious to see if his only brother, Tomas, survived in quarantine. He opened the door to the hut brandishing a knife, partially rusted, that he had found near the grave site.
“Keep back! I’ve come to find my brother Tomas,” he said. He could scarcely see the profiles of the eight or more people haunting the room.
“Tomas?” He let his eyes adjust to the velvety darkness. Caffa and Arturo realized that Tomas was doomed days ago when “the demon,” as they often called it, first squeezed bloody mucus from his belly. Tomas vomited and defecated himself until his bodily fluids ran dry.
At the beginning of the summer Arturo showed Tomas how to chop wood, write letters, and many other tasks necessary to oversee a nobleman’s estate. Caffa directed his sons laboriously, adding further instruction and corrections when necessary. They both had Caffa’s tight, jet curls and sharp nose. Arturo at fifteen and Tomas little more than two years his junior, were developing into men. Still, at their leisure, they continued to pretend at fighting in the Crusades, taking turns being a knight of the Pope and a Saracen, as they had in years past. Tomas made for a brave Saracen in a losing battle. Arturo hoped that Tomas would survive this.
Startled by a flurry of movement behind him in the stale room, Arturo heard a woman call his name. He spun around and nearly tripped on a soiled blanket spread on the floor. Maria held herself up at the tiny window’s ledge. Her thick, black hair, loosened from its plaits, clung to her skin. Her eyes were feverish, pleading.
“I brought herbs for you and Tomas. You look less tired today,” he said, a lie. Even with pustules marring her body, Maria’s untouched face was beautiful. She looked thinner than when he last saw her, and only a few days had passed since then.
“But I am miserable,” she said, “I know I will die, and I pray it will come soon.”
He kept his distance. “What can I do to comfort you?”
“I thank you for the herbs, but please don’t bother. There is nothing to be done for me.”
“Is Tomas sleeping somewhere? I wanted to keep him company and give him this poultice.”
Maria took a large breath, “You may have crossed his path just now. He left here through the woods.” When she spoke, her voice was an even whisper. Flies buzzed about the hut, clinging to the overwhelming smell of ferment and human excrement.
“Do you mean to say he’s walking home? Is he well enough?”
“Did you not just pass the death cart? I’m sorry.”
He tried not to weep in the presence of Maria, though his chest heaved and he felt faint. Maria moved towards Arturo quicker than he thought she had the strength for. She forced her moist, sick lips on his. God help him, Arturo had wanted to kiss her for so long; ages before the city fell ill and he had never had the courage to. A year or two his senior, she was well liked by the men of the village. Only a few months ago during mass, Maria had caught Arturo appreciating her plump, womanly figure. She had smiled shyly and Arturo averted his eyes to his shoes. Arturo’s desire for her, coupled with his current pity, blurred his reason. They only ended their kiss when Maria began to cough.
Arturo broke from Maria’s hold. She grasped the blade of his knife and sliced her fingers as she wrestled it from him. Bewildered that she might stab him even in her state of confusion and torture, Arturo stepped back, but she thrust the glinting thing into her own stomach, twisting it fiercely. It was like an aspergillum. Her blood was the holy water raining upon parishioners at the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The warm, sticky mess mingled with the sweat that clung to Arturo’s chest.
“Is there a God?” he said as he laid Maria on the blanket. She quivered in his arms, until finally she was still. The other vague figures in the room didn’t appear to take notice, so enrapt were they in picking at their pustules and scratching their heads. Arturo crossed himself, out of habit, and left the hut.
He ran through the city to avoid a second encounter with the death cart where Tomas’s body would be laid haphazardly among strangers. Now he could cry for Tomas. He pictured his brother dying in a dark corner of the straw-covered hut floor like a beast. He hoped Tomas was in heaven, if such a thing existed.
Passing through the city, Arturo saw that the windows and doors of every cottage were closed. The church appeared as a fortress of impassible stone. A vagrant cripple sat on the steps of the church watching a band of neglected children capture pigs, steal bread and coins—seize anything they found of value—from the homes of the deceased.
Caffa was at home when he returned, hunched over one of his medical books. His gaze roved attentively over Arturo’s stained clothes. Arturo sat down next to his father and slowly explained all he had heard and seen. Caffa cried and pounded his fist on the table while chastising him for going to the make-shift lazaretto.
“We built that hut to seclude the ill,” said Caffa. “Do not go back. If I find you’ve defied me again, I will not allow you in this house. We have to accept that Tomas and your mother have gone to their Holy Father. We must try to survive.”
Arturo nodded, “Yes, Papa. Besides, I have no one else to see there.”
“Some of us must live through the pillage, others the loneliness, and of course, there are those who make the ultimate sacrifice for us who remain. There was nothing to be done for Tomas or your mother. We have committed no wrongs. They were lost to us before they went into quarantine,” he said.
Arturo recalled luring his mother and Tomas there, and a goat for milk. With linked arms, they shuffled behind him. Caffa had told them Arturo would bring them to the river Dirillo to convalesce but would first stop at the new shed where they stored the wine. Arturo hesitated upon reaching the door, but, remembering Caffa’s orders, brought them in. He couldn’t just turn and bolt the door without a word. He explained that they would remain together in the hut on father’s orders, that so long as they stirred about, their breath was a threat to Caffa and him in the villa. Arturo’s mother didn’t try to kiss him goodbye, and she held Tomas at bay when he reached for his brother. Arturo backed out of the hut and locked the door.
Mama had died four days after that. He sat with her for hours, stroking her hair as if she were a frightened child. “Father couldn’t make it,” he said softly, “he had to reconcile expenses. Taxes due today I think.”
“Do they still collect taxes? Who?” she croaked. He knew she was remembering that Scilipoti, their friend and tax collector, had died early last week.
He said, “Please, relax Mama. See how peacefully Tomas sleeps.”
“Haven’t seen your Father since—“
“He misses you so, only he is afraid to upset your weak constitution.”
Her eyelids fluttered and she sat up to cough. Arturo saw the dark blood in her handkerchief, another stain among the dried waste encroaching on her shrinking frame. They said the Lord’s Prayer together some hundred times, until she trailed off from “those who trespass against us” into heaven, he had thought. Her bluish, warped hands unclenched, opening palm-up at her sides.
Sitting beside Caffa now, Arturo felt a mass throb below his left armpit. It had appeared yesterday. He knew his fate was certainly an unhurried, disgusting death, but he could easily disguise it from his father. Caffa would send him to the filthy hut to die, so Arturo would say nothing. He thought that it might be tomorrow when he would start to retch and squirm without human dignity. Caffa would soon notice the patches of purple skin emblazoned on his son’s body, but until then, Arturo would remain at home with the consoling spirits of his mother and Tomas. He waited, with patience, to be hurled into a crowded grave with the others who embraced one another even as, in turn, their insides liquefied and rotted. They would be nothing of consequence but a shameful remembrance to cowardly survivors.
Abigail Hammond is studying at Faifield University for her Master of Fine Arts degree. She is a vegan and lives in Albany, New York with Pippin, her shitzu poodle.
Photo by Michelle Jones