by John Davies
Masseo found himself in a street he had seldom cause to walk along - no one lived here, not anymore. Cross-legged, the two boys sat at his feet, their oval faces dusty and slack as they silently studied the friar. Torn threads showed the sallow flesh of their arms and legs, mapped with childhood scars and scrapes. The daily ambition of the two orphans had been to escape from St. Bonaventure, each recapture only fuelling their determination to flee.
Masseo had almost crushed their game of dice to dust, lifting his foot to reveal two knucklebones, each displaying a solitary drilled hole. Kneeling to dice-throwing level, cowl collecting in a rough heap about him, he felt the underside of each boy's jaw in turn, finger and thumb tracing the pulsing cartilage of each burning throat. Forcing his hand to move, as if his fingers already knew they would find on each discoloured neck the familiar egg-sized lump.
Masseo recalled the red slab of stone they had laid at the end of the Strada Nuova to signal the last outreach of plague, its advance halted by superstition, or simply by the way the wind had turned, the city knew no difference in its panic.
Neither boy flinched at the Capuchin's touch, continuing to watch him with red-tinged eyes, brimming in wide pools. Watching until the white-haired friar, satisfied, replaced his burlap hood and carried on towards St. Bonaventure – dazed, as if pulled too soon from sleep, and still part of him left in that other place.
They had abandoned the white-walled church in summer, its grounds still blazing with colour. Two seasons later, wild grass and root had taken hold, already wrist-thick in places. Malformed branches worked their way through the cracked walls of the Friary, staking a claim for desolation, and Masseo wondered how long the Friary would stand for: the bell tower, the basilica, the Mass chapel. He thought of how quickly untended life loses its way.
The bell tower stood hollow, no longer tolling for meals or prayer. Existence had diminished to the sound of a cowl flapping in the breeze - that of the remains of the sentry friar, nailed wrist and foot to the tower. At any moment, Masseo expected his old mentor, Stefano, to pass the vacant plinth where St. Francis had once stood. To cross the courtyard towards the oval-windowed chapel, book of prayer held under one arm as always; appearing now, and now again between the archways, and now failing to reappear. Stefano could always put a familiar passage across in a new light, words becoming clear like forms emerging from dense fog.
The mark of Stefano was indelibly here, as the wind blew scrub across the uprooted burial ground. In the shadow of the basilica lay the turned-in humps of former plots, the earth long since given up its bones. None had opposed their excavation more than Stefano, Masseo remembering his final words on the matter: “Here lies dust and ashes, nothing else. Bear this in mind.”
Masseo had remained silent, giving the impression of accepting his superior's decision as final. He remembered their long gone brothers jostling for precedence alongside the fresh cartloads of plague dead. Either order became nameless the longer Masseo had looked at the racks of the disassembled; nameless, and finally deathless.
Wooden carts sagging with their grim cargo had clogged the city's arteries, each street appalled with the stack of them - the figure estimated at one hundred thousand in two short, sickening months.
Masseo moved silently through the gaping wounds of St. Bonaventure. The spilt wine of dusk came through the ruined roof finding the church floor lined with black slumps of leaves. Where the friars had asked fervently for a swift end to the plague’s hold, the remnants of their prayer places lay splintered and rotting.
The fog that had seeped into their dreams remained when they opened their eyes. From the river its tendrils turning each corner of the city. It had risen to claim the streets, thick and dank when it reached the nostrils, its scent somewhere between sea and earth. Through doorways and keyholes, cracks in floors, windows and shutters, fingers of mist had entered their homes, seeking out where the children huddled.
Maddened by weeks enduring this faceless shroud, some had been driven to claw out their own eyes in frustration and fear rather than suffer any longer. The fog itself took on their anguish, carrying their tortured sounds to the outskirts of the city, across the river, and finally through the walls of St. Bonaventure.
The fog had endured for three full weeks, maintaining a consistent thickness before suddenly drawing back as succinctly as it had appeared; it retreated under the cracks of front doors, through keyholes and window frames, as if sucked back by the same mysterious force that had exhaled it. The fog breathed its last over the Tiber, finally revealing the long forgotten sun.
In the fresh clear dawn, Masseo had found Stefano sprawled at the base of the steep Friary steps; broken-necked, Stefano’s swollen face twisted up at his former student. In those blind weeks they must have missed him, stepping over his corpse that could have at any time tripped them to meet his fate. Even through the fog the crows had taken his eyes.
The river was clogged with those similarly fated, their bodies moving steadily in the currents like so many spars of wood. For the survivors, the fog had left plague behind, the first falling swollen and black within a week of its retreat.
The isolation afforded by the fog had allowed Masseo to bring together all he had previously envisaged, to design the joyous chambers of the Capuchin dead; he found purpose for the plague's discarded, of which, in the end, there had been too many to bury.
“Do not even entertain this, Masseo,” Stefano had warned. “Our brothers lie in long rest.”
In the crypt of St. Bonaventure, a cockroach was the only thing to move in the chamber they had dedicated to Lazarus; bare walls rebounded its scuttle, retelling its owner as gigantic. Masseo entered and lit three tall candles, awakening above each the skeletal sentry friar, skulls chestnut coloured inside their furled hoods, as if perpetually ripening. Their heads were slightly bowed as if in long prayer as they rested in their alcoves, clasping bibles in bones of fingers, or holding wooden crosses to their breasts.
There were so many skulls that the eye refused to take any more in, and Masseo saw nothing of death's making. So many that their number became one, faceless and one. Where there were eye sockets, candle-flame flickered a brief soul and the crypt cowered.
Masseo’s lantern lifted the blindness of each chamber, its comet brilliance pausing over each flourish, each swirl he had laboured over. His life’s work condensed to this: ceilings decorated with vast circles coiled like tails about to snap, clock hands of human metacarpals knowing no limitation, knowing nothing like hours.
Filling the back wall was a sand-stilled hourglass fashioned from bone, while below the skeletal Lazarus stood, slack-mouthed as if gasping for new breath. Pillars of skulls provided a border to this depiction, all lower jaws removed so that each skull rested on the next.
The material of the friar's hood crackled as Masseo brought Stefano's skull forward, kissing it delicately and revealing the jagged hole above where the right ear had been. Remembering the weight of the rock in his hand, Masseo felt no remorse for his superior’s death, not in this of all places.
Set in the opposite wall, the two orphans lay side by side on their stone bed. They had been huddled together outside the walls of St. Bonaventure, dice still clutched in their hands.
Masseo lay beside Stefano on the stone ledge, the lump under Masseo’s jaw now beginning to force his mouth open as he fought for air. The flesh of his neck was already darkening, swelling with blood. “Soon, Stefano,” he whispered.
Masseo felt each chamber of the crypt come alive as if his laying down was the final sacrament: that he had committed all, even the flesh. His cowl removed, Masseo in body became his own prayer; verse wrote itself before his eyes, as if from the hand of some unseen tattooist, traipsing his skin. Unravelling word by word across his bare chest, which rose and fell erratically until it shuddered its last.
now living in ireland, john davies is originally from liverpool and is a member of the poised pen writers group. his work has been published by, or is due to appear in, the fog horn, ares magazine, pseudopod, rosebud and interstellar fiction.
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