© 1996 by Joyce Bowen
be reprinted without permission of the author
It is the third day of June in this the year of our Lord,
in the city Florence of Italy. The heat is not yet enough to tempt the opening
of the windows. I am grateful; for every day now, the streets fill with the
bodies of those having died during the night — and sometimes from the night
before and more. Carcasses, no matter what their position in the community,
smell much the same in the full bloom of day."God will save us.
I have cared for my young
mistress for the seventeen years of her life. Her family has cared for me all
of mine. If she survives, she will never be the same innocent I held to my
breast in her infancy. Death has touched her and has made her beautiful eyes
shallow pools with no reflection. She sits by the window and stares at the
garden left untended since my son died of the pestilence. It has been this way
since the death of the last of her loved ones, her betrothed. It was a love
match to be sure; and a more handsome, kind youth I have not known since my own
boy was young. I am too old for the horror, the screams, the revelry, and the
madness. I am tired and afraid — not for myself, but for the
Enough of self-pity and what is past. I leave soon to fetch the
urine of the virgin daughter of my friend who lives near Ponte Vecchio: a
covered bridge lined with deserted shops where goldsmiths, a short while ago,
sold their wares.
Every day I bathe my mistress in warm water
to ward off the sickness. The doctor said any water will do, but the virgin's
water is pure, and when my mistress' mother became ill, my son made her a drink
mixed with herbs and the water. She wore a bag of defecation about her
neck, but all attempts to save her were in vain. I pray that by using these
things before the sickness can set in, it will be prevented from doing so. I
find it hard not to reflect on the horrors of yesterday. It is, perhaps, better
than surmising about what is yet to come.
As I leave my home, I see a
group of bechini, men who bear the bodies of the dead to their final resting
place, just up the street. I know I must settle back into the doorway or they
will take the offerings I carry for the virgin's mother. But no — look, they
occupied with Maria's daughter, poor thing. Maria is standing near the side
entrance. We both watch as the jocular bechini stroll through the gate with the
girl between them: one with his arm around the the sobbing girl's shoulders;
the other's arm encircles her waist. Maria is making no move to protest, and in
short order I see why: Her husband is lying dead on a slab a short distanc
e from the front doorway, a beautifully embroidered tablecloth covering his
body up to his nose as if death could be denied by this simple act of exposure.
As I move from the doorway, Maria's tormented gaze meets mine, and I
understand. The price for the bechinis' services becomes dearer each
The longer I am out here, the weaker my stomach is becoming from
the smells and the debauchery. I find it hard not to vomit and I quicken my
steps to avoid meeting others. To stop for something so trivial could bring
disaster. But no, I will the bile rising in my throat back to its chamber, and
continue on my way to Ponte Vecchio: "The Bridge of the Dead Goldsmiths". I
clap my hand over my mouth to stifle a demented titter. My gruesome epithet
for the bridge horrifies me. Flesh meets flesh, hand to face, and moisture
spits painfully into the center of my eye as it returns to its source. I find
myself envying my young mistress's senseless state, and worse still the dead,
anguished reunion with the outside world.
Ahead gathers a chanting
crowd in the Piazza Della Signoria. On reaching the people on the outskirts, I
learn that the Council of Eight has announced the arrival of a group of
flagellants. They are moving across the bridge as we speak, and I am deterred
from going farther. I know if I do not join the crowd, I may be condemned by
their Master as a heretic and burned alive for my trouble. I begin to sway with
the others, moving closer towards my goal as I croon the words in harmony with
the voices around me:
repent our sins.
Pain will cleanse us.
Now it begins."
But I am past the days of believing that watching a collection of
fools scourging themselves with spike-tipped whips to the point of bloody
unconsciousness will save us.
I have found my way into the alley where
the home of my friend waits with the precious liquid. Ev
ery few steps, I move one way or the other to avoid treading on some poor soul
left to rot or be eaten by the hogs. The tears return, but now it is not
sadness that brings them; it is the acrid smell of decomposing flesh. Again, I
choke down the bile mixed with the remnants of my last crude meal as I stand in
front of the door I have been seeking. I enter uninvited as agreed, and am
struck by the thought that the smell is no less inside than out.
adjust to the darkness, I see them huddled in the corner. The child's head
rests on her mother's breast, her once-blue eyes bleached white by death.
Isabel, the mother, looks to have died sometime after her daughter, and I
wonder if it was not from a broken heart, rather than the pestilence. As I draw
a piece of coarse linen over what is left of them, I know God has forsaken us
all. I'll go home now—to die with my child. I know that will give me some
solace. If she dies before me, a dose of gentle poison will do. If God strikes
me before her, there will be enough for us both.