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The pleasantly warm Tuscan air of June drifted lazily through the trees that lined the cobblestone streets and covered the hills beyond. But today’s air carried a malignancy in Vinci, as had the air of the last year. The Black Plague had killed hundreds in the region. I was a plague doctor in the town, and it was now my duty to treat those infected. Oh, what I saw in my time there…
I was busy stuffing the beak of my mask with dried roses and crushed mint. It was a simple plague doctor's mask, fashioned from tan leather, with the appearance of a bird's head, which did lend itself to jokes and names. The beak was filled with aromatics, such as herbs, flowers, burning incense or even a vinegar soaked rag, to ward off the sickness carried in all foul air.
Before long I heard the quick tapping of Gustav's walking stick. He didn't even need it outside of examinations and for a man of 63, he was in remarkably good shape. He called out in his heavily accented Italian.
“Agnolo, hurry up! I have the medicines prepared.”
He opened my door, fully cloaked in heavy leather and fabrics, coated in wax and holding his mask in one hand, wide brimmed doctor’s hat in the other. Gustav’s mask was much more extravagant than mine, made from deep red leather, the beak closed with exactly seven sinews and featuring a black, curving smile that wrapped around the perfectly cut lenses. It was equal parts elegant and disturbing.
His own face was deeply wrinkled and pockmarked, but not unsightly. His aquiline nose curved sharply down, and his face was covered by a short gray beard, which seamlessly met his short gray hair.
“Come on, put your mask and hat on. At this pace they’ll all have died by the time we get there.”
He had a, strange sense of humor…
The house was simple, built from stone and wood. Gustav cautiously tapped his walking stick on the door and muttered a simple prayer in German. Not only was he a man of great intellect, but also of great faith. The office that we operated from was once a church, and Gustav still used the altar every day for prayer.
A long and tortured groan croaked from behind the door, followed by quiet sobbing. It sounded like a woman, or worse, a child. I quickly banished the thought.
“Is anyone well enough to answer the door?” Gustav asked, concerned. No answer. “Agnolo, open it.”
Hot air blasted from the doorway, and not even the aromatics in my mask could mask the scent of illness and decay. I doubled over, hacking and spitting and cursing as Gustav calmly thanked me and stepped in. I knew he could smell it too, but was hiding his disgust as to not frighten the sick inside. At that moment I knew very well I was being unprofessional, but it had caught me off guard.
After a moment I stood up and stared inside. I saw four adults and six children, all quietly groaning or crying. I looked around at their shriveled gangrenous fingers and toes, the large swollen lumps that covered their scrawny bodies and were steadily seeping blood and pus. Some of the more immobilized people were lying in puddles of their own blood and urine and God knows what else.
So many, I thought to myself. So many have ended up like these poor souls, and Gustav and I are risking the same fate treating them...
I quickly put my mind to the present matter of helping them though, and walked over to Gustav, who was standing rather imposingly over a small child, inspecting and prodding him with his walking stick. The child could have been no more than four years old, and I felt a stab of intense sadness and pity. I had a daughter at home, and Gustav had told me that he had four children and nine grandchildren living back in his native Holy Roman Empire. He turned to me, shaking slightly and with an uneasy look in his eyes.
“Agnolo... there is a cellar door behind you. Could you check if anyone is in the basement as well?”
“Of course Gustav, right away.”
The door was old and a bit stubborn, but it eventually opened. The air was cold and fresh, a welcome change from the awful smell above. At first I thought the room was empty, but a scared voice called out.
“I know who you are! You're a plague doctor!”
A man not much older than I was staring at me from the corner of the clammy cellar, his back pressed against the wall and giant dark eyes dominated his face. They reminded me of a cornered dog. I looked at him.
“Yes, I'm a plague doctor. I'm here to help you.”
I began to step toward him, but he shrunk further into the damp brick.
“I'll get no help from you! I'm not sick, and if I were you'd cover me in mercury and cook me in an oven! I've heard the stories!”
“Listen, I just need to check you over to make sure. There are a lot of sick people upstairs.” At this point I noticed he was shielding his right hand from my sight. “Only untrained fools would cook a man in liquid metal. I'm a trained doctor.”
“You'll feed me poison to kill me off! I'm protected down here, in the fresh air!”
“You still had to travel through the deadly air to get down here.”
After much convincing, he finally allowed me to examine him. I pulled out a small wooden stick from a modified sheath around my waist. It was much like Gustav's walking stick, allowing me to inspect the ill without having to get too close. As I nudged his slightly blackened right hand from his torso, I heard loud pounding and scraping noises accompanied by what I swore were soft pleads to stop. The patient I was attending to heard it as well, and glanced at me at me with the same fearful look he wore earlier.
“What the hell are you doing up there?”
I barely looked up from my inspection. “My partner Gustav is treating some very sick people. The Plague is extremely painful in the final days. But, as long as you stay out of that diseased air above and try to drink hot beverages at every opportunity, you should be fine.”
I left the man to his own devices in the cellar and went to fetch Gustav. However, when I emerged from below, Gustav was nowhere to be found. Perhaps one of them had died and Gustav had taken the body to a mass grave? I did a headcount. Three adults and six children. One less adult than when I had gone into the cellar. The people left seemed a bit more restless, squirming uncomfortably; one was repeating something unintelligible. I almost thought she was saying, “Taken... Taken... Taken...” That further confirmed my suspicions that Gustav was busy burying a corpse. So I left the diseased air inside the home and waited outside for a while.
As the setting sun painted the sky with brilliant pinks and golds, I had become too impatient to appreciate them. Gustav had been gone for hours. Where could he be burying that body!? The nearest mass grave was only a half hour's walk!
At last I figured that my aromatics had become too spent to keep me safe. Gustav must have thought the same, and went back to our office.
He was most likely waiting for me, maybe worried I had caught the plague and collapsed. He worried about me like a father worries for his son. Possibly because I reminded him of his own son who died before he came to Tuscany. I didn't mind it, as I had worked with mentors that absolutely despised me before working with the old German.
The walk back to the church was quiet and peaceful, but for all the wrong reasons. I put that out of my mind. I didn't like thinking about my job in my off time. I finally began to wind down and appreciate the scenery. I had to admit, the town and land beyond was rather beautiful. The pestilence that had infected its people hadn't infected its crops as well, leaving rows upon rows of farmlands on the hills. Perhaps God was feeling generous, I thought.
The town had converted an old abandoned church into our base of operations and temporary residence after its few members had became too sick to attend. I had only planned to come here for a few months to train under Gustav, but the Plague had changed my plans. Here I was, 18 months after leaving my pregnant wife in the south of the country. The church's rough brick walls almost blended into the deepening blue of the sky, and I had to feel for the door. Doesn't Gustav have the manners to light a lantern or two?
The main hall was dark, except for what appeared to be a single candle resting on the altar, the light broken by Gustav's form. I lifted my mask.
“Gustav, where did you-”
The smell hit me like a wall. Malignant and ferrous, I gagged and put my mask back on as fast as I could. Gustav turned sharply, staring at me with wild eyes, with something I'd never seen in them before. He pulled off a rag tied around his nose and mouth and his face split, ear to ear into a deranged smile.
“Leo, you’re home! Come; see the birth of a new scientific era!”
There was something in his voice, something broken and disturbing, it just didn't seem like him. I backed up into the large pine doors, a terror growing inside me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
“Gustav… It’s me, Agnolo. Your apprentice... your partner? Please tell me what’s happening, what are you doing on the altar?”
A bloodied form lay on the altar, motionless, cut open like a pig at the butcher’s. Gustav did dissect bodies occasionally, to develop new remedies and treatments for the plague. But he would never soil a sacred place of God with the blood of the sick. What was he doing? All expression left his face and he looked at me chillingly with giant, bloodshot eyes for what seemed like an eternity before a demented smirk crept across his face.
“I think I would know the name of my own son, Leo…”
I then remembered Gustav telling me about Leopold, his dead son, the reason he left his home for Tuscany. He raised his hands and slammed them both on my shoulders, a wet slap echoing in the church, and the sound of quiet dripping carried on behind me. His hands were soaked in blood and purulence; I could smell it, even through my aromatics.
“Now, come and see what your father has done! This will change the world!”
He put his arm around me, smearing more bodily fluids across my clothes, and half dragged me up to the altar, where his gruesome work lay.
I stared at the corpse, cut open from his navel to his throat, all organs on display.
And then I saw it.
It was weak, but noticeable. The lungs and heart. Breathing and beating. It wasn't a corpse, I thought, this man was still alive. I choked back vomit as the edges of my vision darkened, almost focusing on the rhythmic motion of the man’s organs.
“Oh God, Gustav! What have you-“
My speech was cut off by a glove clad hand hitting the side of my cheek, splattering blood and complement across my right lens.
“Do not speak the Lord’s name in vain!” Gustav yelled at me.
The force of the old man’s hand nearly knocked my mask off, and I removed it after a few seconds, not wanting disease so close to my face. I swallowed hard, not knowing what to make of the situation, my brain a disheveled cloud of confusion and fear. “Why are you doing this?” I half sobbed to the insane shell of the man I idolized.
Gustav showed something like pride on his face when he proclaimed, “Because I have found the true cause to the Plague, my boy! The ill are possessed, by thousands of demons and beasts that God has allowed to destroy the damned and sinful! A second flood, you see.”
I tried to stay calm and collected, and even though I was at a loss for words, I spoke anyway. “What makes you think that?”
“I have seen them, in the rivers and streams, in the blood of the sinners, in the beasts that walk the earth, and I have seen them! “And the Lord has told me what they are, and that I am the one to save the damned!”
At that moment I knew he had snapped into insanity. His faith and genius had complimented each other so well before, but they collided in the most disastrous way possible. Now here Gustav Schuster stood before me, once a wise man, now a madman.
I muttered half to myself, “They're going to kill you for this.”
He looked at me, puzzled. “Why would they murder a prophet and their savior? Have they no gratitude?”
To this day I don’t know why I said what I did. Perhaps it was out of respect for the man Gustav used to be, or perhaps it was the shock of seeing what he had become. Stumbling and stuttering on my words, I numbly said, “Yes, they are without gratitude for such a… selfless act… I’m sorry Gustav, but if they find out what you’ve been doing, they’ll surely kill you.”
“I see… the blind cannot see my efforts. If the work I've been doing is unwanted, then what should I do, my son?”
The work I've been doing… the wording seemed odd to me. I pressed on though, pretending to ignore it. “It’s too dangerous here. You need to leave here. Be with your family. God will sort this out, I’m sure.” My words were shaky and unsure, and I wondered what consequences this would have. His children would surely keep him from doing this a second time, I assured myself.
His eyes looked almost sad, but I wasn't sure if he was lucid enough to know what sadness was anymore. “Will you be joining me, Leo?”
I had nearly forgotten that he thought I was Leopold. “No, I must sort everything out here before leaving for home. I will say you died of the plague and I buried you in the mass grave not far from here. But you must leave as quickly as possible.”
A small smirk flashed across his face when I mentioned his burial. “Yes, I’d like to think I would spend eternity with all my hard work.” His face then turned deathly serious, and without another word he slinked off behind the altar, where I assumed he went to his room. He never said another word to me.
I stood there in shocked silence, my back to the altar, afraid to look at the opened torso behind me. Within fifteen minutes, he had left, carrying a small crude sack over his shoulder. His last words deeply disturbed me. What did he mean by all of his hard work? I slid down to sit on the floor, and began to quietly sob.
After a few minutes I stood up and stared at the man on the altar. His eyes had opened, but his heart was no longer beating. He must have regained consciousness before succumbing to his illness and the injuries that German fool inflicted upon him. What suffering he must have endured... I picked him up and carried him out the huge doors, to the mass grave, illuminated by just a half moon and innumerable stars.
I looked into the crude pit, filled with hundreds of the damned and unfortunate, and one of the bodies caught my eye. Although it was hard to make out, I was sure the corpse had a large incision from navel to throat.
I dropped the body I was carrying in disbelief, and it rolled into the pit. My eyes darted from body to body, my brain a confused swarm of terror and denial. I didn't want to look, but my eyes seemed to move without my instruction, body to body, incision to incision. Chilling realization washed over me, and I felt horrified that I let that corrupt bastard run free.
I doubled over and vomited in a bush next to the hole. I'm going to pass out, I thought. I'm sure of it. I took off for the church, and my feet pounded in the dust so hard I thought they would break. I had enough of this, I thought. I'm going back home with my wife and daughter and living like this never happened. A second realization finally clicked in my head a few seconds later. I finally knew why Gustav lost so many more patients than I…