The Sickest Time- Chapter Two
As foretold, the sickness did come to Villearrièr, visiting the homes of several individuals, then their families, and then their neighbors. The criers spoke of staying at home if one was sick, and of keeping distance from those showing signs of the sickness, but somehow the malady spread still. The governor, still of good body and sound mind, put it on only the most astute of folk to seek out a solution to the spreading sickness; those of the clergy.
At first, a great mass was held by those still unconfined and untouched. Packed inside the church of Villearrièr, the people prayed as a whole for the sickness to be ridden from their land and for those stricken by it to be cured. After all was said and done, little had changed— rather, the number of cases had instead risen. With options dwindling, the men of the cloth descended from their church upon the hill to seek out the source of the sickness directly.
Frère Jaques and Frère Sebastian were on the streets that day, hoping to intercept those who could be passing on the goods that were rumored to be carrying the taint. In their long tan cloaks, rosaries, and sporting haircuts akin to that of men a decade older, their presence was well-noted.
“Peace be with you,” Sebastian said to the passing fellow, his hands pressed together, nudging Jaques further to the opposite side of the street.
“Oi, you’re making me walk in the piss and shit here, Sebastian,” Jaques whispered to his partner while carefully placing his steps.
“Can’t be too careful when crossing paths with these random folk.”
Jacques took a long stride forward, just enough to pull past Sebastian and out of the gutter. “Oui, but he looked quite fine. Even for someone who lives in this part of town. In fact, I believe I’ve seen him working a market stall before.”
Sebastian shrugged. “Yes, exactly. Merchants like him are essential workers.”
“No doubt. Thoughts and prayers, of course, but I have not seen any of our material resources spared for them.”
Sebastian held a finger to his lip before resigning to a shake of his head. “Nor have I. I suppose it’s not our job. But what we’re doing today will certainly keep them safe.”
“Let’s hope,” Jacques said under his breath, bowing and wishing well to yet another passerby. Just slightly further down the hill was the bay, its water glimmering in the midday sun and the gentle breeze bringing forth the smell of refuse and rotten fish.
A wide flat ship was just beginning to furl its sails as it pushed into the slip where it could be unloaded. The clergymen drew attention as they marched onto the quay as the sailors tied the vessel to land. The gangplank clattered loudly as it was set against the rocky landing.
From the ropes and the walkway, corpulent rats skittered down, running underfoot and hiding in the voids between rocks and among old crates. Sebastian jumped and lifted the hem of his cloak to keep them away from his legs. “Get, away now!”
The captain of the cargo vessel was already engaged with Jaques by that time. “Good day. I’d like to have a look at what you’re carrying.”
“Of course you would. And I wouldn’t want to be upsetting the governor or the Lord. Well, get on up then, but make it quick.”
Jacques marched up the gangplank. Sebastian followed soon after, catching the frustrated look of the sailor. The movement of the tide rocked the boat like a fat baby in an undersized cradle, and Sebastian felt immediately put off.
Jacques threw back the front of a canvas tarp, revealing the crates and barrels beneath. With tender fingers, he pulled up the lids and checked the insides. The other priest wandered among another pile of goods, his nose taking in the smell of something familiar and scandalous. “Hmm. Care to help me over here?”
“You have something?” Jacques redirected himself and approached the smaller collection of crates. Sebastian had the tarp up, revealing the tiny stems of the round fruits protruding from the burlap sacks. “I see. Good nose.”
The sailor approached them. “Something the matter?” He asked innocently.
“Cerise,” Jacques proclaimed, pulling the first of the sacks open. “Contraband fruit.”
“Those? Well, this is the first I’ve heard of such a prohibition,” the seafaring man sighed, hands on his waist.
“They’re from the east.”
“From the east?” The sailor puzzled, glancing off back in the direction of the sea. “The seller I got those from was in the port to the west.”
“Yeah?” Sebastian leaned into the sailor’s face. “But where do these little fruits come from originally?”
“That’s not really my job to know. A tree?”
“Ehh—“ Sebastian buzzed annoyingly. “Well, I can tell you… fruits, trees, whatever— they’re not from around here. And that makes the Governor and the high priest worry. Have you ever heard of Marco Polo?”
The other priest perked up. “Polo? The Venetian? Right, he went all the way to the east. China was it called?”
“Oui, China,” Sebastian murmured. “They eat with sticks there. At least from what I’ve read. When you have ten full fingers to do the job.”
“Is that why you’re afraid of people from the east?” The sailor asked, attention draining.
Sebastian scowled. “Well, I’ve never seen one, an eastern person, but there would be reason for worry. Anyway, back to the Polo fellow… the nice diaries he left us told about what he saw there, eating-sticks aside. These cerise are but one thing that he mentioned. Now, they say the sickness is from the east. Ergo, anything from about those parts could be the catalyst for all these folks getting sick.”
“Which is why, regretfully, they must be coming with us,” Jaques concluded.
The sailor scratched the back of his head. “I see. Well, I don’t want something so dangerous on my hands. They were thrown in as extra, anyways.”
Sebastian took up one of the remaining sacks and eyed Jaques. “Someone was trying to send the sickness our way, perhaps? I’m sure the high priest would like to know about that. We’ll take these for now, and have some of the others by later to pick up the rest. Just don’t eat them yourself? Or worse, try to sell them.”
The sailor nodded and bowed his head. “Thank you for watching out for us.”
“All in the service of God,” Sebastian took leave down the gangplank first, sack slung over his back, with Jaques quickly after.
Up the hill a slight amount, Jacques rolled the sack back over his shoulder and reached into its opening, tied loosely by an old rope. He came back out with a couple of the small fruits stuck between his fingers, rubbed them on his cloak, and popped the first into his mouth, keeping their stems locked in his grasp. After gnashing and separating the flesh, he turned his head and spat out the pit into the road.
“Sweet?” Sebastian asked, peering into his own sack.
The other priest almost took one for himself, but a sudden yelling shattered the aura of pride they had earned from their deed. “My good brothers,” an older woman whined and flapped her hand at them from an open window on the second floor of the road’s housing.
“Yes, Madame?” Jacques stowed the bag under his arm and peered up, hand to his brow.
The old woman shook her head, defeated, with nearly tears in her eyes. “My husband. The sickness is taking him! Could you read him… his last rites?”
Jacques made eye contact with the other priest first. “Eugh… I suppose we have to, don’t we?” he said in a low voice. “But… the sickness.”
Sebastian nodded with a furrowed brow. “The woman doesn’t have any of those boils. At least not that I can see.”
“Well, I’d say you should get some glasses, but they haven’t quite come this way yet.”
“Let me guess, they’re being invented in Italie currently, are they?” Sebastian said, arms stuck to his sides.
“Yes, but… well, forget all that. If we go in there, we’ll likely get sick.”
“The grace of the Lord will protect us?”
Jacques rolled his eyes. “Yes, of course.”
The woman at the window cleared her throat. “Uh, gentlemen?”
“Oh, uh!” Jacques perked up. “Yes, of course! He deserves his last rites, doesn’t he? Perhaps… just maybe… since we’re on our way back with contraband and must truly make it quickly… you can prop the man up in sight of the window?”
The old woman looked back, then down at them once again. “If… yes, I suppose I can do that,” she said, lowering her eyes and retreating back inside her abode.
Sebastian crossed his arms, still looking up at the window. “She said read him his last rites, non?”
“In fact, neither of us has the good book.”
Jaques shrugged optimistically. “Yes, and neither do any of these folk. They can’t read, after all. I know enough of the words, I shall offer them.”
“Well, then, don’t let me take up your stage, then.”
There was a loud scuffle at the window, followed by the appearance of an aged, disfigured face. The old man was tarnished with rat bites and blood and puss from the boils that had taken to his skin like barnacles on a fishing boat. The old woman strained heavily, her arms up under his, as he finally managed to shift his weight to hang off the sill above them. “Please, gentlemen. There isn’t much more time left for him. Husband, listen closely.”
Jacques puffed out his chest and stepped forward, sack of contraband hanging from his hand. “Lord, oh Lord, be prepared to take this man from us, for he has been with us so many years. Take him, and return him to your side, and allow him peace. And oh Lord, in all your grace, fix his gruesome visage, so that he may spend eternity with you looking proper, like Anakin Skywalker’s force ghost at the end of the re-release of Return of the Jedi. In God’s name we pray, amen.”
The prayer cut off, leaving only the sound of a tricking chamberpot from the neighbor across the street, releasing its contents into a wide cascade of splashes.