The Plague


© 1996 by Joyce Bowen
Not to be reprinted without permission of the author

     It is the third day of June in this the year of our Lord, 1348 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.
     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 child.
     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 laced with urine 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 are 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 day.
     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, in this 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:

"God will save us.
We 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.

As my eyes 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.

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