Two men, Michael and Matteo, guard a well on the outskirts of no specific European city. The Black Death is making its way westward.
“Last night, for a moment there before bed, I didn’t want to pray.”
“First time since I was a boy. Since I could speak, really. I simply didn’t want to. It pains me terribly, but I just couldn’t see a reason to get on my knees.” Matteo quickly made the sign of the cross.
“I’m with you on that, friend,” Michael said. “I am with you on that.”
Matteo turned to Michael. “Do you mean that?”
Michael shrugged. “Fuck it. No point, is there?”
“But if all of this…this ruin is God’s divine retribution for our erring, we must pray forgiveness. This is what the Pope decreed.”
Michael gathered phlegm in his mouth and spit. “The Pope.”
“We must call out to Him and repent, is what Pope Clement says. Raise our voices!” Matteo’s shoulders slumped. “Last night, after changing Elsa’s dressings and washing the girls’ sores, the point escaped me. Faith, my faith, it all just feels exhausted, Michael.”
Michael leaned forward and farted loud and slow. He allowed the stink time to scatter then said, “So did you?”
“Did I what?”
“I recited litanies, yes. But I did so with little enthusiasm.”
Michael nodded. “And did it help?”
“How does one measure?”
“Were the sores on your girls’ bodies still bleeding this morning? Were your wife’s dressings soaked through with the puss and the filth and the blood she’d coughed up during the night?”
Matteo poked at the dirt with his halberd in silence. Over the hill walked a group of pilgrims praying aloud, desperately. Their legs caked with mud. Their exposed skin speckled with bruises and buboes, horrible symptoms of the plague. They moved in blood stained, ragged clothing. Many were crying. Some held children, also crying.
The bearded man leading the group wore tattered vestments of green and gold. He held a wooden crucifix above his head as he led the group past the stone well where Matteo and Michael were posted guard.
“Look at this motley crew,” Michael said, sizing up the women in the group.
“Where do you suppose they’re heading?” Matteo said. “Fleeing the city, I suppose.”
Michael sniffled and said, “No, I’ve heard of these fools. They’re the people of Messina. Off to Catania to steal away the relics of St. Agatha and bring them back to their city. By force if they have to, I’m guessing. Everything’s by force nowadays.”
“The relics of St. who?”
“Agatha? What’s she the patron saint of?”
“Bellfounders and rape victims.”
“That’s some parish.”
Michael sneered, “They believe it’s a holy defense. The relics. The victims of Messina think the relics will help protect their city. A gang of righteous fuck-faces.”
Matteo and Michael watched the pilgrims from Messina pass over the horizon. Their agonized prayers hung on the warm breeze. Michael took off his kettle helmet and rested it on the edge of the well. “Fuck me, it’s hot today.”
“Everything is dangerous,” Matteo said.
“I’m sorry?” Michael said. “Are you talking about the heat?”
“Everything. All of it. Dangerous.”
“The air, the dirt.” Matteo nodded at the well. “The water. It’s poison, all of it.”
“Not this water.”
“No, and it’s not fair.”
“Fair’s got nothing to do with why this water isn’t poisoned. And everything to do with you and me guarding the shit out of it.”
“No, Michael. No I mean it’s not fair the archbishop’s water gets to stay pure while the water we drink is laced with pestilence.”
Michael nodded. “Rats piss in it.”
“That’s what I mean. We drink rat piss and the archbishop gets to bathe his feet in clean well water, protected by armed guards.” Matteo stabbed the end of his halberd in the dirt, hard, until he tore a callous. He cursed at length, then crossed himself.
“Fucking A,” Michael said. “That’s the spirit.”
“But what…”Matteo’s voice trailed off. He stared off in the distance a moment, in the direction the pilgrims of Messina had walked. “What drives them?”
“The pilgrims?” Michael said.
“They’d like to cure their people, I’m sure. And protect those left unscathed thus far. What more of a drive do you need, Matteo?”
“I need something greater. I feel like…like deep down inside me I used to be filled with…with a drive. It had a lot to do with my girls, of course. Elsa, my beloved. But there was something else there too. A rock of sorts. A foundation, like a great marble column. And now I fear it’s gone. Rotted away like the sea of corpses beneath our feet. Why do we guard this well at all?”
Michael swatted a fly away from his face and sighed, “Well, Matteo my dearest companion, on paper it says we guard the archbishop’s well out of our innate sense of duty. To Christ and king and his holiness, Pope Clement the sixth.”
Matteo scoffed. “Three men too afraid to look the public in the eye. Even Christ Himself.”
Michael was excited by his pious friend’s new attitude. He said, “Aye. Chickenshits. The lot of em.”
“Did you pray last night?” Michael said.
“I witnessed a stabbing,” Matteo said.
“Last night. My neighbor, just after sundown, he stabbed a man out front. Right out there in the street. The swine.”
Michael whistled. “What possessed him?”
“He’s got the plague. The rotten swine.”
“Just having the plague isn’t reason enough. What did-”
“I’ve heard it makes animals out of some men. Hijacks the brain. He stabbed this man and went back inside his home as if nothing happened. Left him lying there in the gutter.”
“But what started it, is what I’m asking.”
“My neighbor saw the man empty a pale of eel skins in the road. He told the man-“
“Eel skins? You ought not to toss them in the street. Those attract dogs. Worse, rats.”
Matteo continued, “He told the man to pick them up. The man laughed it off. My neighbor leapt on him.”
“Is he still there?”
“The man? He was when I left this morning. All bloated, in a pool of festering blood. I’m hoping the man with the collection cart comes forth this afternoon and takes him away.”
“Where did your neighbor stab him?”
Michael nodded. He cleared his throat and said, “I woke up feeling nauseous today. A bit light headed.”
“Oh no, Michael.” Matteo turned to him, eyes full of sorrow. “Perhaps it’s just something you ate. Are you in need of fresh grain? Here!” Matteo reached a hand under his chainmail and fished out a small bag of fragrant herbs. “Breathe into this.”
Michael slapped his friend’s hand away and laughed softly. “Matteo, I love you, my companion, but don’t be an asshole. I’m sick. First stages of the plague, it must be.”
Matteo crossed himself. Turned his head down, and prayed. Michael slapped the staff of his halberd against his shin. “Be a fucking realist, man.”
“Dear Michael,” Matteo said, crying now. “I’m so sorry.” He started walking in short circles, scanning the horizon, scared. “It’s everywhere. It’s more than a pestilence. It’s a presence that commands and keeps us-”
“Stop,” Michael said.
“Claws! It has claws, Michael. And it’s tearing, ripping the landscape and all in its path.”
“You’re embarrassing, man, stop.”
“But Michael…” Matteo was practically on his knees now.
“Relax, I’ll be fine. Take comfort in the fact that I don’t give a shit.”
Michael scowled. “In your condition, you shouldn’t blaspheme so.”
“Did you not hear the news?” A smile grew on Michael’s face. “From Avignon?”
“Avignon? No, the Pope? What did he say?”
“He’s granted remission of sins for all sorry bastards that die of the plague.”
“Is this true?”
“Word came to the archbishop this morning. His water boy told me, before you got here. While you looked over a stabbed man in the gutter.”
“Told to you by the water boy? Which water boy?”
“Not the regular Tuesday one. He’s dead. It was the weekend water boy, with the harelip and dead eye. The slow one.”
Matteo shuttered. “He’s a difficult one to look at. And he told you this? Swear it’s true!”
“This is…this is…Oh I embrace this blessed day!”
“Embrace away, pal. I’ve got to take a shit. Mind the well.”
Michael leaned his halberd against the well and walked to a nearby bush. He undid his belt and squatted behind it while Matteo dug his knees into the ground and declared this a sacred day. His hands folded in front of him and head bowed, he began to pray, really pray, for the first time in two days.
A warm, wet drop of blood dripped from his left nostril onto his folded hands. He gasped and wiped the drop off on his chainmail. He stood and more drops fell. He held his hand up to his nose. The drops became a steady stream of thick, dark blood.
“Oh Lord, no,” Matteo said. “Dearest God, not now.”
“Maybe it was something I ate!” Michael said from behind the bush. “I’m backed up like a Byzantine fucking trade route in winter.”
“Michael?” Matteo said, one hand over his nose.
“Give me a minute!”
“Michael, I’m thinking of going home. To share the good news with Elsa and the girls. The good news of the remission of sin for victims of the plague. Do you mind if I go home?”
“Go on, be with your family.”
“Are you sure?” Blood oozed between Matteo’s fingers.
“Just toss my weapon over here in case someone comes by and catches me with my pants down.”
Matteo took Michael’s halberd with his clean hand and tossed it towards the bush. Then he took his own weapon. He looked at the blood on his chest and started jogging home.
Michael called after him, “Hiya! My love to the girls!”
“Are you feeling okay? Matteo, are you all right? Excuse my saying so, but you look extremely fucked up this morning.”
Matteo swayed on his feet. His pale skin was blemished and damp. Sweat trailed out from beneath his helmet. Up each of his nostrils was stuffed a small tear of fabric, caked with blood.
“Is it…is it the girls?” Michael said. “Are Elsa and the girls all right?”
Matteo’s voice came out in a croak, “Do you dream, Michael?”
“Dream? Sure. Just last night I dreamt my mother walked in on me fornicating with myself. Then she gave me some bread pudding. It was more of a reward than a punishment if you ask me.”
“She came to me in a dream last night.”
“My mother? Pervert.”
“The Plague Maiden. She carries a handkerchief dipped in blood. Her hair is long and black as midnight. Snowy complexion, her eyes dark. She wears a long dress made of rat hair. Her body is…is exquisite and tall. At night she walks from house to house and sticks a slender arm in through the window and waves the bloody handkerchief inside, releasing the plague.”
“Sounds like an ex of mine.”
“In my dream, she did just so. She waved her foul handkerchief into my window. The soiled fabric drifted in the air and pulsed, as if it had a heartbeat. I grabbed her hand to stop her. To…” Matteo’s voice trailed off. He struggled to swallow. His mouth was dry. His tongue swollen. “I could feel small, horrible things moving about on her skin. Her hair concealed her face like a black curtain. But I heard her laugh. It was a terrible, high-pitched laugh, like that of a touched child. And with incredible strength, she pulled me through the window.
She held on to my hand and led me down the street. To the well where we stand every day, then past it, into the woods. She walked me through the wood. The wolves fled at her scent. Hand in hand we walked past the guards, into the archbishop’s manor on the hill.” Matteo turned and pointed at the large home that stood above the tree line. Arched windows stared down at them.
“In his dining hall, a great feast was being held. The hall was, it was brilliant. Unmatched in its lavishness. Flemish tapestries, silks from Asia. A concert of joyous music was being performed. There were nobles, seven in all, around the table. Nine courses they were eating. Roast stag, hares, pheasant…and the fruits. My God, Michael, the fruits!”
“The Plague Maiden walked me through the hall. The nobles paid us no mind. We were like ghosts. The feasting never stopped. Michael, you’ve never seen so much heavenly food. And none of them, the nobles, none of them were sick.”
Michael waited for Matteo to continue. When he didn’t Michael said, “Well that’s really something, man. Best chronicle it in your dream journal before you forget.”
“And there at the head of the table,” Matteo’s voice boomed now, startling Michael. “Sat the bastard!”
“Which…which one?” Michael said. “I know of six bastards on my block alone.”
“Ah. Well you said it was his feast, after all.”
“The archbishop. Sitting on his throne, observing the splendor, the opulence of his court. Ermine pelt, white as snow, wrapped around his shoulders. Squires held aloft two golden crosses, one on each side of him. Stewards, flocking everywhere, serving him like mad.” Matteo swallowed hard. “And…I swear this, there were almoners, tossing handfuls of coins on to the table. On to the plates. The nobles, Michael, they were actually eating the money thrown on to their plates. As if it were food. As if it were nothing. They chewed coins as easily as meat.”
“The Plague Maiden showed me all of this. My hand still in hers, cold as a corpse. And she led me to the archbishop’s side. In front of him was this magnificent chalice filled with clear, beautiful, life-giving water. The chalice was so full that it took the archbishop both hands to lift it to his lips. The Plague Maiden, she let go of my hand then. At first I thought about running. Flying from the manor and returning to town, to home. But I stood there, to see what she would do. To see if she would bring pestilence to these people. These horrible people that most deserve it.”
Matteo stared off toward the archbishop’s manor, his face in a trance. Michael nudged him. “Go on, Matteo.”
“In one hand the Plague Maiden held her bloody handkerchief. With the other, she moved the hair from the front of her face so I could finally see her. Her nose was narrow, jutting out from the center and coming to a point. It was the face of a vermin. An abomination before God. She revealed her ghastly self, looked at me with dead, beady eyes, and then dipped the handkerchief into the archbishop’s chalice. The water turned blood red.”
“Shit, then what?”
“The archbishop raised the chalice to his mouth. And then I woke up.”
Michael said, “Fuck me that’s a heavy dream, Matteo.” He removed his helmet and set it down on the well. “I’ve gotta sit down after that tale.” Michael sidled up on to the well. “It’s no wonder you look like trash this morning. Dream like that, that’s biblical-ass shit.”
Matteo stepped forward and grabbed Michael hard by the shoulders, nearly sending him backwards into the well. Michael threw a hand out to steady himself. “Dammit, Matteo. Would you relax?”
“Don’t you see, Michael?” Matteo eyes glowed with a crazed passion.
“See what? That you ought to drink some mulled wine before bed? Stave off these wicked dreams.”
“The she-rat, she showed me what it is I need to do.”
Michael scowled. “What the shit are you talking about?”
“She showed me exactly what to do to cure the injustice in this diocese. In this whole town.”
“You’re not talking about crashing the archbishop’s dinner party, are you? You’re talking about…”
Matteo pulled the bloody fabrics out of his nose and let them fall to the ground. “Elsa and the girls. They died last night.”
“All three of them?”
Matteo nodded. “They died together.”
“Jesus Fucking Christ, man! You might want to lead with that next time! Before you tell me about some trippy dream.”
Matteo started to cry.
“Hey, listen, Matteo, I’m sorry. I know those girls were your world. My condolences. Sincerely.”
Matteo sniffled. “I’m dying, Michael.”
Michael jumped off the well and brushed dirt off his ass. He sighed, “I figured as much, Matteo. And I’m sorry. Living with three sick women as you have been, hell, it’s a wonder you’ve lasted this long. A miracle is what the fuck it is.”
“I will die of this plague.” Matteo’s voice was assured, confident. “Maybe in two or three nights. The growths have started. Growths in my armpits and my groin.”
“What do they look like?”
“Pebbles, but soft.”
“Do they hurt?”
“Will your death be quick?”
Matteo shrugged. “Quickish.”
“I’m…I’m so sorry, man.”
“But don’t you see?”
“No, I don’t.”
“What we talked about the other day. What the pope said.” Matteo spoke slowly. “Remission of sin for victims of the plague. Remember?”
“Hey, that’s right. How about that. Seems like all your sins will be forgiven, once the plague takes you. Lucky man. Don’t even have to go to confession.”
“But what sins bear me down, Michael?”
“You forgot my birthday last week.”
“I’m being serious, my friend. What sins do I carry?”
“You got me, man. You’ve always been the straightest arrow in the quiver.”
“Exactly. What a waste of papal decree. No sins to be forgiven at death. What use is the plague to me if I haven’t sinned? So…why not commit the biggest sin of all?”
Michael stepped back and gripped his halberd at the ready. “Are you asking to fuck me? If you are, you can knock it off right-”
Matteo laughed. “No, no Michael.” Matteo looked towards the archbishop’s manor. “What greater sin, in all the world, than murdering a man of the cloth?”
“Oh…oh shit. Yeah that’s pretty bad.”
“Do you see? I kill him, and it won’t matter. All my sins will still be forgiven, because the plague will take me. Pure absolution.”
“The pope’s word is law in the sin department. No one can argue that.”
“That’s one papal fucking loophole you found yourself there, Matteo. Bravo. So…how do you plan on offing the sanctimonious old cumberworld?”
Matteo grinned and nodded at the well. “Before the boy comes to collect water tomorrow, I’m going to poison the well.”
Michael smirked. “Like the Jews do! Well, supposedly do. But, you know, if the archbishop dies, I’m out of a job.”
“Dear Michael, oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t think of that. I was so possessed with a sense of…of virtuous justice that I didn’t-”
“Oh shut your tart hole.” Michael laughed. “The way this devilish plague is plowing through the land, I figure I don’t have much longer before it bites me in the ass too. So screw it all. Let’s kill the son of a bitch.”
Matteo clapped his hands. “Oh dear friend. I’d embrace you, but I’m…you know.”
“Not feeling well, yeah. I know. So what’s your poison then? What are you going to toss down that well? How do we taint the holy waters below?”
Matteo said, “Are there any rats in your house?”
“One or two.” Michael winked.
Matteo bent tiredly forward over the well and moaned, long and low. He hadn’t bothered to wear his helmet today, nor his chainmail. His halberd lay discarded in the dirt. He stared at the water below and listened to the funeral bells chime in the distance. Another mass grave being filled in. The town had run out of room to expand the cemeteries. Any open plot of land was deemed suitable enough to dump fresh piles of bodies every morning.
“Hiya! Look alive, plague bearer!” Michael walked with an easy gait up the path from town. A burlap sack slung over one shoulder. His halberd was gripped in his other hand.
Matteo laughed as Michael dropped the sack at his feet.
“What’s that?” Michael said. He looked at his friend and his heart sank. Matteo’s skin was pasty and wet. His eyes bloodshot and his face hatched with veins. “What’re you laughing at?”
“Look alive,” Matteo said. “You told me to look alive. Me, on the cusp of death.”
Michael slapped him hard on the back. “Chin up, tiger.”
Matteo pointed at the sack. “You were able to catch a few of the vermin then?”
“Was easy. I put some table scraps in the bag. Fatty, gristle bits. Then I went next door to my neighbor’s place, down to his basement, and put the bag near the waste pipe I installed last year. There was a score of rats hanging around it.”
“You installed a waste pipe in your neighbor’s basement?”
“In secret. Last summer, yes.”
Michael looked at Matteo as if it was the dumbest question in the world. “So when I shit in my house, it doesn’t stay in my house. Why would I want my own house to smell like shit? With the pipe, it travels down to Agnolo’s basement. Logic, Matteo, simple logic.”
“The plague took that son of a whore a week ago. Now look at these little fat suckers.”
Michael undid the string around the mouth of the sack and held it open. A wet ball of at least a dozen black rats writhed inside. Their tails entwined. They stank of shit.
“Excellent, Michael. Thank you.” Matteo leaned against the well.
“I’m feeling weak. This morning I found myself unable to walk further than a few paces. My legs felt like molasses. So I rode atop the collection cart to the end of the path. I sat on top of a pile of fresh corpses.”
“Sounds like a luxurious commute.”
“But it did not feel like I was defiling the deceased with my presence, for I will be joining them shortly. And still, before you ask, I am resolute in my decision to bring pestilence into that divine house behind the trees.”
Michael nodded stolidly. “Good, because I’d hate to think I’ve carried these whiskered assholes all the way here for nothing. C’mon then, let’s get these bastards in the well.”
Matteo reached for the sack. “Let me dump them, please. I am the one who will receive absolution upon death. This is my sin to bear.”
Michael handed the sack to Matteo. “Be careful. The fuckers bite.”
With effort, Matteo hefted the sack of rats on to the edge of the well. He lowered his head, shut his eyes, folded his hands, and began to pray.
Michael rolled his eyes. “Are you for real right now, Matteo? Just dump the thing.”
Matteo crossed himself and sighed with completion. “I prayed the rats’ illness finds purchase. That the water becomes pestilence itself and the archbishop dies a slow, excruciating death with buboes over his eyes.”
Matteo took the sack and began tilting it towards the lip of the well when a voice called from behind them, “Hey! What have you two got there?!”
Michael and Matteo turned towards the voice. The water boy was marching towards them, a bucket in each hand. His dress consisted of one large piece of brown fabric with a hole in the center for his head. He barely came up to Michael and Matteo’s waists.
“I said what have you got there?” He nodded towards the sack. With his round head and walleyes and large slit mouth, the boy resembled a fish. “Why’s it making that funny sound?”
Matteo casually tied the sack shut again and placed it on the ground behind him. He said, “You’re a bit early this morning, aren’t you?”
“Archbishop’s thirsty. When he’s thirsty, I get him water. No fucking schedule about it, is there? Do you get thirsty on a schedule, bright boy?”
Michael scoffed. “The mouth on this turd.”
“Where’s the regular water boy?” Matteo said. “The one who comes in the morning.”
“The one with half a tongue?”
“The one with the harelip.”
“Is he left-handed?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think you mean William. He died last night.”
“Choked on a ham bone.”
Matteo crossed himself. The boy continued, “So now I’m working double duty, so if you twats don’t mind, I’d like-” The boy squinted at Matteo. “Say, what’s with you?”
Matteo straightened his back. “Excuse me?”
“Said what’s with you? You look all…damp. Sticky and pale. Your eyes…you look like…” His eyes glanced down to the squirming bag on the ground, then back at Matteo’s bloodshot eyes. The boy’s mouth fell slack.
“Kid,” Michael said, gripping the staff of his halberd tight. “Kid, don’t. Don’t do it, please.”
The water boy spun on his heels and darted back towards the path in the woods that led to the archbishop’s manor, the empty water buckets swinging wildly at his sides.
Michael and Matteo ran in pursuit.
20 yards from the well Matteo’s legs gave out and he collapsed. Michael skidded to a stop and turned to help his friend.
Matteo waved him off. “Go! Get the boy! If he tells the archbishop, we’ll both die worse fates than the plague! He’ll castrate us! I must die of the plague to be forgiven! Fly, Michael!”
Michael cursed and took off, legs pounding and halberd at the ready. Matteo watched Michael kick up dirt before disappearing into the tree line. Michael didn’t take the regular path through the woods. Matteo figured he would try to cut the water boy off at the small bridge over the creek.
Matteo rested for a few minutes, breathing in earth, before straining to his feet and making his way back to the well and the sack of rats.
Uncertain of the outcome in the woods, Matteo prayed on it a moment then decided to follow through with their plan. He grabbed the sack off of the ground and was surprised at how light it felt.
“Oh no,” he said examining the sack. “Oh no no no…”
A series of ragged holes dotted the burlap. The rats had chewed their way to freedom. Not one was left.
Matteo dropped the sack and looked around. He saw the black mass of rats making their way back towards town. He eased his ass to the dirt and leaned against the well. There he thought about Elsa and the girls and the geography of hell. He imagined it as a map and wondered where all of the plague victims who died before the papal decree of absolution were meant to suffer.
The sun was directly above Matteo when he heard Michael coming back back from the woods. He squinted against the light and saw the water boy slung over his shoulder.
“Thank God, Michael,” Matteo said, getting to his feet.
Michael dropped the water boy on the ground. He tossed his halberd down out of the boy’s reach and keeled over, hands on his knees, panting. “Fish faced fuck sure is heavier than a sack of rats.”
Matteo looked down at the boy. “My dearest friend, is he-”
“I’m telling you right now, you better die of this fucking plague. If you don’t, you’re definitely going to hell for this.”
“But is he-”
“No, just unconscious. Hit him over the head with a stone. Fast little prick. I left his buckets on the bridge. Hopefully if someone comes sniffing along, they’ll think wolves dragged him off.”
“Whether someone comes along or not, he will be missed.”
“Water boys don’t have families.”
“I mean the archbishop will send someone to look for him. Here, at his destination. Here at the well.”
“Shit.” Michael caught his breath. “Goddamn stupid kid.” He noticed the empty sack. “Did you dump the rats? Why are there holes in the sack?”
“When I returned, they were gone. Chewed right through it.”
Michael kicked the sack. “Fucking bucktoothed, little rotten…”
He continued to curse the rats and Matteo said, “Folly taunts us this day.”
“Can’t you just, you know, spit into the well? That French quack, Guy de Chauliac, he said the plague can be transmitted through bodily fluids, I think. So spit in the well. Piss in it!”
“I fear it would not be enough. A drop of saliva or stream of urine are not significant enough vessels to transmit.”
“How do you know?”
“My heart tells me.”
“Your heart has the plague. It doesn’t know what it’s talking about.”
Matteo shook his head. Michael sighed and said, “I suppose I could trap more rats tonight. Gonna need another sack though. That was my good turnip sack, dammit. But maybe we should figure out what to do with him first.”
“I’ve got it,” Michael said, excited. “Michael, I’ve got it. Dare I say that the horrible calamities this day have engendered my wickedness.”
“Spit it out already.”
“No, not spit it out. Bleed it out.”
“You’re going to bleed into the well?”
“The blood, like the spit and the urine, would not be a strong enough vessel, I believe. But him,” Matteo pointed down at the water boy. “He would make a fine vessel for the archbishop’s defilement.”
“Yeah but…” Michael thought on it a moment and could not figure out what Matteo was suggesting. His own wickedness had been surpassed by that of his pious friend. That fact scared Michael a bit. “But the kid doesn’t have the plague, Matteo. I’m all for throwing the twerp in the well, but he’s worth fuck all to you as a plague vessel.”
Matteo tilted his head toward town. “Do you hear that, Michael?”
Michael listened a moment. “I don’t hear anything.”
“Exactly, the funeral bells, they’ve stopped. Now quickly, pick up your weapon.”
Michael looked down at his halberd. He said, unsure, “Why?”
Matteo looked at Michael as if it was the dumbest question in the world. “I’m going to give this boy the plague.”
“Stop this,” Michael said. “You wish to use the kid as a plague vessel?”
“This can’t be,” Matteo said. He looked around, feigning confusion. “What has become of my brazen friend Michael? When did he become such a…nancy boy.”
“You take that back. Strike it from your tongue!”
Matteo held out an open palm. “I shall, once you draw blood from my hand.”
“You’re acting insane. The sickness, the plague, it’s got you talking crazy.”
“Insane…crazy…these words ring hollow in my ears. How does one measure insanity when it’s the end of the world? Now, cut into my hand with your weapon so I may bleed into this boy’s mouth.”
“Christ on the cross, Matteo. Is this really the path you want to go down?”
“Any path I take, from this moment on until I drop dead of the plague, will lead me nowhere but divine absolution. Pope’s orders. But in your case, Michael, from this moment on, you will be remembered as a nancy boy who was frightened by the idea of-”
“Give us that palm, asshole.”
Matteo steadied his hand. Michael took his halberd. “Sharpened it last week,” he said and with one downward motion, sliced open Matteo’s palm from below the pointer finger to the wrist.
Matteo cringed and inhaled sharply.
Michael dropped his halberd in the dirt. “Shit. You okay? Did I go too deep? Oh shit, Matteo.”
The wound bled quickly in a steady stream out of Matteo’s palm. The parts of his face that weren’t blotchy from plague turned a snow white. He grabbed his wrist below the wound. The blood was already forming a puddle in the dirt.
“That’s…awful fast…a lot of…oh good Lord…” he managed to get out before collapsing on his side.
“Matteo?” Michael said. He crouched next to him. “Oh goddammit all…Matteo?”
Michael tore a strip of fabric from the boy’s tunic. The boy stirred. Michael wrapped the fabric tight around Matteo’s hand, making a knot over the center of the wound.
Michael cursed elaborately as the fabric turned a deep red. He slapped Matteo’s face and cursed him too. “Wake up, cock for brains!”
Matteo’s eyes opened. He gasped and sat up, startling Michael.
“Oh thank Christ. You scared the absolute shit out of me. I thought you were dead. Thought my slip of the blade cost you your divine absolution.”
Matteo panted and inspected his hand. The bleeding had slowed. “I may have died, but for a moment. I had a vision of Elsa and the girls. They were crawling out of the well towards me, singing a heavenly melody. They looked themselves again. No sores. No buboes.”
“How’s your hand?”
“It was sublime. To see them so healthy again, so alive. I could have almost touched them. But when I reached out for Elsa’s hand, you must have slapped me in the face.”
“How’s your hand?”
“It throbs. Where’s the boy?”
“What do you mean?”
“The boy’s gone.”
Michael turned and the vacancy of the ground confirmed what Matteo had said. He scanned around the tree line, in the direction of the town, then the manor. “That is one fast little prick.”
“Not even a cloud of dust left in his wake. Fast prick.”
Matteo sighed. “It matters not.”
“I’d give chase but…I’ve not a clue where the he’s gone. Were you really going to bleed into his mouth and throw him in the well?”
“I’m impressed by your wickedness.”
“It’s nothing to applaud.”
Michael sat cross-legged in the dirt across from Matteo. He picked at the dead grass. Matteo inspected his hand.
“Torn from the kid’s tunic.”
“It’s probably his only tunic. Poor bastard. Poor quick bastard. He looked like a shaved testicle, you know? That’s a hard life. It’s good he’s so quick.”
“I suppose he’s off to the manor to tell the archbishop of our mutiny.”
“Mutiny? You put it too lightly, Matteo. We’ll surely be executed under the charge of treasonous plague fuckery.”
Matteo nodded absently. There shared a moment of silence, then he said, “It has been an honor to serve with you, my dearest friend. Michael, for the last three years we have formed an unshakable bond that goes beyond the oath we-”
“The waste pipe.”
“The waste pipe…the shit pipe I inserted from my home to Agnolo’s next door. Where I collected the rats.”
“What about the pipe, Michael?”
“I don’t know why I did it. There’s a small creek that runs behind our street. Just as easily, I could’ve run the pipe out there, into the water, where it wouldn’t hurt anyone.”
“Well I think that could have contaminated the drinking-”
“But instead I snuck into Agnolo’s basement and ran the pipe there. I shit in my house and it trickled down into his basement, stealthily. Why did I do that? I like Agnolo! He’s a decent man! Last October, on the feast of St. Crispin, he brought me a goose. A fat fucking goose, Matteo!”
“He sounds like a generous man.”
“He knew I was alone and he brought me a goose. All prepared, spiced to high hell and all. And how’d I repay him?”
“You shat in his basement.”
“Twice a day!”
“You stay quite regular.”
“It’s the bread pudding.”
“This is remorse you are feeling, my friend. In times of woe, a person often considers the missteps they have taken on life’s journey.”
“Life’s journey,” Michael scoffed. “Earlier, before I nearly severed your hand, I referred to life as a path. These stupid words we use to describe what is essentially a stationary existence. You and I, we’ve done nothing but stand at this well for three years. Path…journey, ha! ”
“Oh leave me out of this.”
“And what has it done to us? Our station in life. You don’t even look like Matteo anymore. Like my compatriot who stood still on life’s fucking path with me for three years. My Matteo had better skin. And was significantly less wicked.”
“I’m not sure I enjoy this philosophical side of you, Michael. Not while I’m dying.”
“What can I do for you?”
“Take my boots off.”
“I don’t wish to die with my boots on. They say that’s what a proper soldier should do, but I just want to be comfortable.”
“But you’re not dying right now.”
“I am. I think I am.”
“Is it because of your hand?”
“No, it’s becoming difficult to breath. My insides, they feel like a terrible fist is squeezing them. My boots, please.”
Michael slid Matteo’s boots off and arranged them next to the well. The imagery made Michael choke up. “Is there anything else I can do?”
Matteo looked around, scowling. “Locate what direction the horn comes from.”
“The horn. You don’t hear the horn?”
Michael tilted his head. “No…oh yeah, I hear it now.”
“Where is it coming from?”
“The manor, I think. The kid must’ve arrived and told them our business.”
“No, no listen. I don’t think it’s coming from the manor.”
They both listened a moment. Michael said, “It could be coming from the town. Or somewhere in between.”
Michael walked slowly around the well, in the grass they’d worn down from three years of duty. “Where is…where the hell is that coming from?”
“Michael, where are we?”
“The well, Matteo. We’re at the well. That won’t change.”
“Are you sure?”
“It’s like a fixed star, this well.”
“No matter where we drift on our path, we shall always arrive back-“
“At the well.”
The horn sounded three more times, closer, but Michael and Matteo still could not settle on the location of its source.
Five men on horseback charged out of the woods. Two knights in front, three archers in back. Their horses were adorned with the colors of the archbishop.
Matteo wiggled his toes in the warm air. “It appears the ominous horn was coming from the manor.”
“Waiting among the dead for death to come,” Michael said, and sat back down next to Matteo.
The archbishop’s men pulled the reigns and stopped their horses in front of Michael and Matteo. The lead knight looked past them, at the well, in silence. The other knight rubbed his horse’s ear. The three archers talked about what they would like to have for dinner.
Matteo sat still in the dirt, his body tense with fear and pain. “Do they see us, Michael?”
“How could they not, Matteo?”
“Then why don’t they speak to us?”
“Maybe they think they’re too good for a couple of lowly guards.”
“But it is as if they don’t see us at all!”
“You’re right. Maybe they don’t see us. Hey you!”
“I said hey you! Dick nose!”
Neither knight nor the three archers acknowledged Michael. He continued, “Are you lost, Sir Dick Nose? Sir Dick of Nose, are you deaf?!”
The lead knight tilted his head towards Michael and squinted.
Michael said, “What gives? It’s like he can almost hear me, almost.”
“Oh dear Michael, I fear perhaps we are not at the well any longer.”
“Snap out of it, the well’s right there.” Michael pointed at the well.
“But maybe it’s not. Or if it is, these five men are not here with us. Yet they stand right before us. All five men do not hear or see us.”
“10 men, don’t forget the horses.”
“Two are lady horses.”
Michael crouched down to Matteo’s vantage point on the ground. “Right. Eight men, three of them stallions, and two broodmares, standing at the well before us. All of them aloof to our presence. The damndest thing.”
Matteo said, “This could be it.”
“Could be what?”
“It. The sign…the sign that we are already dead. On another plane of existence. Left to our innane conversations for all of eternity, in purgatory.”
“Fuck are you talking about? Is that the plague talking?”
“Who’s to say we haven’t died already? We don’t know what it feels like to be dead.”
“I say I’m not dead. I know I’m not. I shat into Agnolo’s basement this very morn.”
“Oh, well then.”
“If only I hadn’t let that rotten fish faced water boy escape. That little prick-”
“WHERE IS HE?!” the lead knight barked down at Michael.
In reply, Michael clutched his heart. “Holy fucking hell, man. Give me a heart attack, why don’t you. Christ.”
“I said where is he! Answer me!” The lead knight unsheathed his sword. The second knight followed suit. The archers argued over dessert.
“Where is who?” Michael said.
“The water boy! The one you were just talking about. You say you let him escape?!”
“What?” Michael said, suddenly warm. “Which water boy are you looking for?”
The lead knight scowled. “The one with half a tongue.”
“Oh, I was talking about the one with the harelip.”
“Aren’t they one in the same?”
“No, no I don’t think so. I’m not sure I understand your question. Although, the one with the harelip might be left-handed.”
“What? What is your name, you misbegotten spawn of hell?! Answer me that simple question or I swear on the pope’s bones I’ll run you through where you stand!”
Matteo cleared his throat. “We are Michael and Matteo, and we have pledged an oath to protect the sacred well from which the archbishop draws his water.”
“Which one are you?” the lead knight said. “And where are your boots?”
“His boots are over here.” Michael nodded to where Matteo’s boots stood at the well. “I took them off so he could be comfortable.”
“Comfortable? Why should a peon of the archbishop be comfortable? And which one is Matteo and which one is Michael?!”
“No wonder they couldn’t catch the water boy,” the second knight chimed in. “This is rough terrain to give chase in bare feet. I know I wouldn’t want to.”
Michael thought a moment. “So he didn’t run back to the manor?”
“Who?” the lead knight said.
“The water boy. The one with the fish face. Is it the fish faced one you’re out hunting?”
The lead knight nodded gravely. “An alarm has been raised at the manor.”
“Yes, the archbishop’s taken ill.”
“I’m afraid so. It is the plague.” The lead knight crossed himself.
Michael and Matteo exchanged wary looks.
Matteo said, “But how? The archbishop, he is protected in a divine manner, as well as a physical one. Quarantined in the manor.”
“We believe the water boy is behind the treachery. The fish faced one. He’s poisoned the water drawn from this well.” The lead knight dismounted with expert flair and took a step toward Michael and Matteo. “Have you two seen anything peculiar around the well?”
Michael steeled his knees before they could give out. “Poisoned the well, you say?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” the second knight said. “And he’s not even a Jew! The nerve!”
“We found a small sack of white powder beneath the straw he sleeps upon,” the lead knight added. “Inside was the residue of a known poison.”
The laugh started in Matteo’s belly. His body rumbled. Quickly, the quaking merriment made its way up to his chest and out his mouth.
“What’s he doing?” the lead knight said.
“Laughing, is my guess,” Michael said.
“It’s been a day.”
“Make him stop. I find the noise unpleasant.”
“Matteo, the man with the sword would like you to stop laughing.”
Matteo did not stop. The laughter turned violent, until each ‘Ha’ brought flecks of dark blood.
“He’s bleeding from the mouth, he is,” the second knight said over the thunderous laughter. “Look at him. All blotchy. Bet you poke under his arms there you’ll find some lentils.”
The lead knight turned to Michael. “Has this man been stricken with the unholy disease?”
“And he dares guard the archbishop’s well?! It’s you two who have poisoned the well!”
“Well no, wait a sec, man. We didn’t even get a chance to.”
“Archers!” The lead knight raised his sword.
The three archers, who had taken a 2 to 1 vote for gingerbread tarts, snapped erect at attention, arms stretched to their quivers.
“Wait!” Michael said, hands up.
Matteo continued laughing, clutching his stomach in agony as the plague chewed his lungs.
The lead knight signaled and the three archers adeptly braced their arrows and pulled back on their bowstrings. The sharpened heads aimed straight at Matteo.
“I said wait!” Michael said.
The lead knight signalled again. Michael leapt. The archers released.
Michael landed on top of Matteo, the three arrows pierced the center of his back.
The second knight sighed. “There you go. Now they’re both at death’s door. Let them rot in the vestibule.”
“When the archbishop hears of this…” the lead knight began before trailing off in thought. He had enjoyed a cup of well water this morning. They all had. He continued somberly, “Back to the manor. There are arrangements to be made before this day is done.”
The five rode back to the manor and Michael rolled off of Matteo.
“Fuck!” he said as the arrows snapped under his weight. He screamed and panted and screamed again. “Dear fucking…that was a shit idea.”
Matteo groaned. “It’s as if Agnolo brought you a fat goose every day. You are heavier than you look, my friend.”
“Shove it, sick boy.”
“Why did you do it, Michael? I’m not long for this world as it is. Why shield me from three meaningless arrows?”
“I’m shooting for sainthood. I heard throwing yourself in the path of multiple arrows is one way to do it.”
“Saint Michael of the Well,” Matteo laughed. “Be honest.”
“I did it…because of…your papal absolution…you dumb shit. The arrows would’ve…snatched that divine ticket to the clouds…right out of your diseased…hands.” Blood bubbled between Michael’s lips as he spoke. The edges of his vision darkened.
“Oh dear Michael, there is a place for you in Heaven.” A white fog came over Matteo’s eyes. He felt weightless.
“Long as…there aren’t any water boys.”
Matteo laughed. It hurt and his stomach spasmed. He released all the air from his lungs and said “Elsa” and passed away.
Michael stared at the tree line, at the path that led to town. As the world dissolved, he saw two men walk out of the woods, coming towards the well. Each held a halberd and wore a kettle helmet.
“I told you…Matteo…we’re at the well…that won’t change.”