By Margaret Rennie
Ring around the rosies
Pockets full of posies
We all fall down.
The Genoan fleet drifted into the Messina harbor in northeast Sicily, groaning under the weight of its load brought back from the Orient. Amidst the rare silks and spices and perfumes, lurked a most terrible cargo: mysterious death, carried by the fleas and rats that crowded the great ships. The sailors, already sick and dying, appealed for help to the people who awaited their vessels, but there was no help to give.
As the ships landed, one by one, the rats poured out, seeking new sources of food, scattering in every direction, carrying the pestilence with them, to the farms and towns and inns of Sicily, then Italy and northward, and the Death swept over Europe like a great, black storm.
Brother Gregory pulled up his cowl and hurried from the little shack, a bunch of wildflowers pressed to his face, his fear-filled eyes the only things visible above the bouquet. He had administered Last Rites to a dying woman, whose children, all but two of them, had already died in the weeks prior from the pestilence that had come out of Hell, and had quickly spread throughout Messina and the agricultural community around it. The monk knew that the woman would not find anyone to give her a Christian burial and he regretted that. No one would touch her after her death, not even her husband. She would be dragged by her clothing onto a bark stretcher, thrown into a wagon on top of others swollen with disease, and wheeled to a mass grave, where the sickness would be burned away.
Gregory stumbled to his own transport, choking from the stench of the dead and dying, which assailed his senses even through the bouquet, his eyes tearing from the acrid smoke of the fires that hung in the air. Still he could not bring himself to blink. Even though the Enemy was invisible, he felt better remaining vigilant. This terror all around him was surely the work of the Dark One, and Gregory half expected him to show himself.
He clambered onto his wagon, clumsily gathering the reins with one hand, unwilling to drop the bouquet and breathe the pestilence in. Only when he was well away from the crowded center of town did he reluctantly lay the flowers down at his side. He looked around him, at the still shacks that populated this village, and trembled at the horrors they held within. He wondered if Jesus would forgive him if he stopped making these visits to Messina, if Saint Francis would still hear his prayers. The disease had gripped so many and had already killed most. What could one simple man do against this terrible rider of the pale horse? Even this last sojourn into Messina had been for naught; the womans husband and two remaining children already bore the telltale purpling along their jaw lines. In only a matter of days, he would be called back again to the same shack he had just fled. What was the use? What good could he do the dying if he sickened himself?
He clucked to the horse to hurry her pace, eager to get far from Messina and back to the security of Saint Cecilias, where there was no stench of death, but only the comforting smells of the pastures and meadows that marked his daily existence. He swerved to avoid hitting a man who had rushed from the side of the mud road to meet his wagon. The man ran alongside the transport, reaching up to Gregory in mute supplication. The monks eyes widened at the sight of the emerging buboes that traced the unfortunate mans swollen neck. God forgive me, Gregory thought desperately. Sweet Jesus save us all! He looked straight ahead and shook the reins, urging the horse onward to safety.
Brother Francis smiled a greeting to Gregory as he took the reins from him, preparing to put horse and wagon away for the night. Gregory, weak with relief at arriving home, unsteadily made his way toward the kitchen entry. He glanced up at the sky, and realizing the late hour, thought to begin the business of preparing the evening meal. He stepped off the path into the vegetable garden that he and his brothers kept. Bending to pick a few pods of sweet peas, he suddenly saw something dart past him, something just out of the corner of his eye, something black. Startled, he straightened, dropping the pea pods and looking around him.
He quickly found her. She stood a few feet away, staring back at him with her golden yellow eyes. Gregory gaped. The cat was large, and glossy black, from the points of her alert ears, to the tip of her long tail. His heart drummed in his chest. Get thee behind me, Satan, he thought to himself. Was there no end to the evil that had filled this day? Before he could react, the creature raced toward him and ran between his ankles, causing him to lose his balance. He landed painfully on his backside, and uttered a curse. He crossed himself, and put his palms on the ground, pushing himself back up to his feet. Red with embarrassment, he furtively looked about for any of his brethren who might find entertainment in his humiliation. No one was around; no one had seen. Damned witchs familiar! God Damn you, servant of darkness! Gregory brushed the dirt off his hands and continued to the kitchen door. He left the pods where they lay, forgotten in his agitation.
The woman lay in her flea-infested bedding, swollen black-purple with the sickness, too weak even to moan, small gasps issuing from her dry lips, a wet bubble threatening to burst from her nostril. Gregory knelt, muttering his prayer, trying not to get too close to her, to the smell of her. This was how the pestilence spread, he knew, from the stench of the dying being drawn in on the breath of healthy new victims. He held his hand over her, making the sign of the cross, loathe to touch her forehead. Without warning, the woman opened her eyes wide and reached up to grasp his arm.
"Brother," she rasped, "Brother Gregory! Come with me! Come with me!" Gregory grimaced and tried to scream, but there was only silence, as he vainly struggled to wrest his arm away from the woman before she could drag him down with her into the blackness.
Gregory jolted awake, sweating and panting in terror. He sat up, staring into the darkness and looking from side to side, as if hed never seen the cell before, the coverlet twisted in his hands. This had happened every time, since the sickness had appeared in the hapless community. Each and every time hed made a trip of compassion into the center of the pestilence, he had been unable to sleep peacefully. Mary, pray for me! Gradually, his heart returned to its normal rhythm, and the dreams terrible images began to dissipate. Gregory dropped heavily back down to the cot, and slowly rubbed his arm across his forehead.
Brother Anthony huffed and puffed as he entered the kitchen door of the monastery, and lowered his considerable girth onto the bench at the heavy wooden table in the center of the room.
"Rats," he grumbled. "Ive never seen so many of them! Theyre everywhere it seems, all over the olive orchard, and ruining my grapes. Ill not be responsible for the turnout of the wine this season!" Anthony rubbed his great, round belly and looked over Brother Gregorys shoulder. "What are you planning for the noon meal?" he asked, smiling, the thought of the rats replaced by the much more pleasant thought of food.
"Well," Gregory replied, "nothing fancy, I fear. I didnt sleep well last night, and...GOD BLESS US ALL!" he suddenly shouted. Anthony started, and turned to see the source of his brothers consternation. Sitting in the kitchen window was a large black cat, contentedly licking her paws and ignoring the angry shout of the monk. Gregory grabbed a nearby cup and threw it at the animal. It hit the window sill and bounced on the floor with a clatter. The cat arched her back and opened her mouth, showing long, gleaming white fangs, and hissed loudly. Plump Brother Anthony pulled himself heavily to his feet and walked with long strides toward the window, as Brother Gregory picked up a large knife and made his way around the table, intent on murder. The cat watched them both impassively, and when they were just inches away from her, jumped lithely off the sill into the vegetable garden and streaked away, disappearing around the garden wall.
"Gods mercy!" gasped Anthony. "Where on earth did that creature come from?"
"Bless me if I know, Brother," replied Gregory. "I saw the thing yesterday when I came back from Messina. We havent enough to worry us without an emissary of the Devil coming to rob us of our peace!" Anthony nodded.
"Well, we could put out some traps, I suppose. Old Brother Michael will probably step in one and break his foot, though." Gregory laughed.
"No, no, Anthony. That wont be necessary. Its only a cat. I will catch her; have no fear. She will not be working her evil around here, God grant."
Anthony and Gregory smiled, and turned their attention back to the noon meal.
Brother Gregory toiled in the warm afternoon sun, sweating under his wide-brimmed straw hat, bent to his task of tending the vegetable garden outside the kitchen. Lost in his thoughts, he gently struck the ground with his hoe, breaking up the dirt, softening it to give his vegetables a happier environment in which to thrive.
The cat appeared out of the blue, standing in front of him, just an arms reach away. Gregory froze, standing in a half-crouch, fearful of moving and startling her. She taunted him with her eyes, looking back at him, not poised for flight or in any other way betraying any fear of him. He felt anger rise within himself, and his hand shook as his grip tightened on the handle of the hoe. Legion, he swore to himself. Dont move, witchs own. Dont move a muscle. Slowly, he began to raise the hoe, higher and higher, until it was positioned just over her head. Now, Beast! Gregory brought down the hoe forcefully, destroying several carefully tended plants, and raised his own head just in time to see her tail disappear on the other side of the wall. Magdalenes nightgown! There. He would have to confess that. Damn you, imp of Satan. Damn you to Hell.
Nightfall found the brothers of Saint Cecilias sitting companionably in the dining hall, breaking off chunks of Gregorys oven-warm bread, and passing a tureen of hearty stew around the table.
"A black cat," Brother Paul mused. "Of all things in creation! Where do you suppose it came from?" Anthony began to reply, but Gregory interrupted.
"From Hell, Paul, and make no mistake! She is black from her nose to her tail, and her eyes reflect the yellow fires of the Pit." Gregory set down his bread and spoon alongside his dish, and leaned forward, earnest.
Ive a confession, Brothers," Gregory began. "When I was last in town, to take confessions and administer Last Rites, I...I was afraid. I wished to run away and never return. I thought uncharitable thoughts about the sick and dying, wishing never to see their like again." He sat back. "I believe that this animal, this cat, was sent by the Dark One to mark me as his own. For we know that wherever walks a cat, especially a black one, a servant of darkness is never far behind."
"But Gregory," old Michael wheezed, "this pestilence is like no other that I have seen, and I have walked this earth for well over ninety years. It would terrify anyone. I think that you proved yourself Gods devoted son just going into the middle of it. Satan knows well that you are beyond his reach." Gregory smiled. He dearly loved this sweet old man.
"All due respect, Brother Michael," replied Gregory. "Black cats are emissaries of evil, dont you agree? Yes, and this beast is here for a reason. Naturally, we should have no worry of perdition, but just the same, we must destroy this creature. We cannot allow the powers of darkness to mark us, or to tempt us. We are Gods gatekeepers. We must not allow evil to enter this holy place. I fear that...that this beast brings the pestilence that I tried to hide from. As punishment for my weakness. I fear that I have brought the sickness down on all your blessed heads, and I tell you that this animal must be destroyed, quickly."
All the monks looked at one another in unspoken agreement, and completed their evening meal in somber silence.
Gregory opened the kitchen door to let in the morning air and sunshine. He looked down just in time to avoid stepping on a dead rat, lying just outside the door. The loathsome thing was nearly headless, and had bled out onto the ground. The monk could feel his gorge rise and struggled not to vomit. Then he noticed the cat, sitting on the garden wall. She looked down at him as if to study him, perhaps to see how well he appreciated her hellish gift. Gregory stared back, locking eyes with her. Todays the day, imp, he thought. Thats right. Bathe your wicked self in the last sunlight you will ever see. The cat calmly licked her tail, tired of the challenge, and having quite forgotten that he was there.
Gregory backed into the doorway again, apparently unnoticed by the cat, who continued undisturbed her bath on the garden wall. He desperately looked around for a proper weapon. He thought a moment, then went out to the well and filled the bucket to the top. He did this several times, until the deep kitchen basin was full to brimming. Clutching the bucket, he went to the larder and fetched several dried fish.
Stepping out to the garden, he slowly approached the wall, where the black beast still sat, licking a hind paw in long, graceful strokes.
"Here, kitty," Gregory called in a low, coaxing voice. "Here, imp. Thats right. Brother Gregorys got a treat for you. Something good. Something youll like. Come here, theres a good girl."
He slowly extended his arm, offering the fish to the cat, who watched him cautiously. Getting a whiff of the fish that the monk held out to her, she hesitated only a moment before dropping off the wall and sidling up next to him, her tail held high and crooked at the tip. Gregory set the fish on the ground and stepped back. The beast nosed the offering, walked around it in a complete circle, and commenced nibbling. Gregory waited only a few seconds, then leaped forward and dropped the bucket over cat and fish. A loud, echoing yowl emitted from underneath the bucket, and Gregory held it tight against the ground, not to let his quarry escape. He gathered the hem of his robe and held it to the bucket, lifting its edge ever so slightly and slowly, until the bottom of his robe snugly covered the top of the bucket, sealing the cat inside.
He ran unevenly into the kitchen, with the ridiculous assembly held tight against him, the cats claws quickly shredding the cloth that imprisoned her. Gregory hobbled to the big basin, and standing on his toes, leaned over it and plunged into the water the whole of the assembly that he held, cat, bucket and robe.
The animal fought mightily, her yowls no longer piercing the air, but the water bubbling furiously with her struggles. The monks arms took the worst of it, the cats deep scratches reddening the water before her efforts ceased. But cease they did, at long last, and breathing a deep sigh of relief, Gregory lifted the front of his robe out of the basin. The cat lay still in the water, her small movements now coming only from the still shifting liquid.
Gregory caught his breath, then lifted the animals body out of the sink. It wouldnt do to have her on hallowed ground a moment longer than was necessary. Picking the bucket back out of the basin, he dropped the body into it and carried it outside. Using the spade to pick up the carcass of the dead rat, he dropped that into the bucket as well. He would carry them both far out into the fields and dump them, where they would eventually be returned to the ground and feed the plants that grew there. Satan serves God, even in spite of himself, Gregory thought, and smiled.
Upon his return to the kitchen, intent on preparing the noon meal, Gregory began the job of emptying the basin, full of the cats death, and his own blood. A glint out of the corner of his eye caught his attention, and for one sick moment, he thought that the devil cat had returned from the dead to haunt him. He turned. Perched upon the table and gnawing at a crust of bread that lay there was a large rat, perhaps the largest that Gregory had ever seen. He stared, wide-eyed, momentarily uncertain of how to react.
The rat stopped its chewing for a moment, and fixed calm red eyes on the monk. It did not try to run or to hide itself. Its natural enemy had been eliminated by the faithful, and it seemed to know that it was safe, and that it need not rush its meal.
The next morning, for the first time that any of the brothers could remember, old Michael failed to rise from his bed, complaining of fever.
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