Rituals of the Crow Man
The world is ending. Rivers run thick with filth, and no gondolas navigate the murky water. Though the day is bright, no one smiles; the fog of affliction is created within the psyche. The color of the country has faded away, leaving behind only the same dismal shade of pale in the sky and streets, which reek of iniquity and decay. The few people that wander them do so hastily; shuffling forward with their heads hung low, they occasionally look over their shoulders but never stare or speak. Never slowing their pace, they futilely flee from an unspoken, invisible terror that has usurped the goodness and sanity of everything they thought they knew. They wear no gilt, for their doublets and petticoats are black with mourning. Theirs is a time ruled by death.
There were many nights like this one in the twilit city of Venice, one of the first to fall to the miasmic wafts carried on the breeze from the east. On one particular night, a waning crescent illuminated the abysmal walls that hosted the beast. No one walked the streets, save one sole figure, who pulled a handcart behind him. He wore a stiff, oily robe and held to his face a sweet-smelling rag soaked in mint. He walked out from an alley onto the main road and, upon dropping the handles of the empty cart, reached into a pocket to retrieve a brazen bell. He shook it violently and called out, his voice muffled by the aromatic cloth.
“Corpi morti,” he exclaimed. “Corpi morti!” The bell and the voice shared a coarse tone, echoing across water and stone to no response.
As if the words held magical properties and had summoned its presence, though, creaking hinges and thudding masses gave way to a throng of people trickling into the street, each with a cumbersome sack on his shoulder or in a wheelbarrow. No two people acknowledged each other as the crowd flocked around the man with the oiled robe, who beckoned with his staff to anyone standing stagnant. Faces of the gathering were long, sorrowful, and yet dry of any concern as sack upon sack was piled onto the cart in a foreboding shuffle. After the atmosphere settled the multitude returned to its contained settlement. The robed man was then allowed to continue on his way, still holding the same cloth to his face. He pulled the cart along the street for some time, but then made pause. Walking to the side of the cart, the man noticed something had fallen out. He reached down with his free hand to slip the pale arm back under the cloth of a thick sack.
— “dead bodies.
The man continued on his way with his macabre collection, humming to himself with no regard for the corpses stacked like grapes in a press. Had anyone cared enough to look out their windows, they would not have found suspicion with him when he wheeled the bulky load into a plot of fenced land with a large hole in its center, surrounded by other plots of similar size with wooden crucifixes where their gaps had once been. Waiting for him were more men, who nodded in greeting. The man met the gesture with his own. All but one held to their faces the same stained cloths, each with its own pungent odor more common among market stalls than the resting place of the dead: mint, vinegar, rose and carnation, cinnamon. Each man, shrouded by the mist of gathering dawn, held a staff in a gloved hand. Many wore rosaries around their necks.
“Well met, signior
,” one man with an incense burner said through his rag.
“Well met, Father Alphonso,” the carter replied.
“Please check the deads’ fingers before the rights are chanted. I will bless the grounds after it is done.”
The carter moved aside and several men climbed aboard the vehicle, opening the bags and peering through them. No one made contact with a corpse, instead poking at them with staves. The bodies were just like others: hair pulled out in patches, thick buboes all across the flesh and claw marks on the chest. They had died slowly, in agony.
“This one's cuticles have grown,” one man said.
“Leave her aside,” said Father Alphonso. “The heart will be burned. Bury her ashes with the other vampires’.”
At this, a man brandished a knife and started at the bosom of the dead woman. Vampires, Father Alphonso and many other Venetians believed, were the roots of the great sickness that dogged the city that day. They would go about the hamlets at night, spreading their vile stench so that they may feast upon the bodies of those they struck with disease. As they increased their ranks with their jinxes, their familiars devoured crops. The only way to keep the sickness at bay would be to destroy the host. The only ways to permanently destroy a vampire, according to lore, are to cut off the head and burn the heart. The chest of the corpse had just been breached when from the bowels came a bloodcurdling moan. Black fluid erupted from the wound. “Make haste! The beast still lives!” Father Alphonso cried. The blood had not coagulated, confirming the company’s fear. A single man was sent to retrieve an axe from the nearby town and when he returned, he found his associates grasping their rosaries, damning the corpse back to hell and murmuring prayers of protection. The axe was promptly plunged into the limp neck of the creature, successfully killing it in their minds and granting them relief. The heart was removed and set aside for a pyre, and a brick was placed in the mouth of the detached head. After the remaining bodies were examined in the manner of the first, Father Alphonso waved the incense burner over the hole in the earth, chanting all the while.
“Lord Jesus, our Brother and our Savior, welcome these children into paradise,” he said. “Let them be with Thee in Thine kingdom and share for ever in the heavenly banquet, where thou art Lord for ever and ever. Amen.”
The ritual, more hurried than the church would have preferred on a crisp Sunday, ended with Father Alphonso sprinkling a vial of holy water over the trench; and with that, the remains of the vampire were the first to enter the grave.
“I am the Resurrection and the Life.”
With these words, the first measure of dirt poured atop the heap of bodies, the troupe of men took up spades and returned the earth to its resting state atop the coffin. Scoop by scoop the petrified faces, still screaming in agony and fear but struck dumb by their bane, disappeared.
“You have my thanks, Lucca,” Father Alphonso said after the burial was finished, “for overseeing the procedure. Will you go to console the families with your Brothers?”
“Perhaps nothing would succeed more in granting repose for my judgment,” Lucca replied. “Alas, I have a patient to whom I must attend.”
“Very well. May God protect you in your travels.”
“And He with you as well.”
Lucca Eligio went on his way without saying more. A skeletal being with a straight stance, the physician walked with his staff beating the dense air. His robe matched the priests’: a waxed cheveril gown as black as fermented ink. Extending to the feet, it did not dance with the wind, as did other garments. His boots were high and his gloves thick, all of the same materials. A broad hat rested on the man’s head, indicative of the ghostlike figure’s title and privileges as a dottore
, but did not hide a face from the sun or elements because the figure did not have one. In its place, lying below the wide brim, was a masque of the most pallid complexion. The ivory-like article completely concealed the man where his head should have been. Two small circles of black surrounded the eyeholes, giving the viewer a bespectacled effect, specks of wisdom among their deathly mantle. Perhaps most frightening, however, was the long, sharp beak protruding from the piece. Stuffed with camphor and spice, it struck disgust in the heart and home, paying reverence to the filthy animals the dead called their companions. Two fullers on either side of the ghastly, crow-like beak were shaped into a revolting grin, a mockery of the demons infesting Venice and the other lands ravaged by the pestilence.
After walking for some time, Lucca the crow man arrived at his destination and slammed the iron knocker to the wood of the door. No reaction was spoken, but a small-boned woman, silhouetted by darkness and curtain, peered at him through the window. Lucca brought his face close to the glass. Her soft face was distorted only by age; the sickness, by some doing of the hand of God, had not reached her.
“Follow me not,” Lucca said. “I must examine her alone.”
The woman nodded and Lucca crossed his arms in waiting. Time was not copious but it was treated as such. The old man of forty-one was escorted to the cellar by his consort, and she returned to open the door for Lucca, all at the pace of molasses. When the door was opened, Lucca did not bother with the standard façade of assurance. Past the candied words of condolence they all died in the same manner, and this one would be no different, and he knew this before even scrutinizing the child. His presence alone was often of comfort to the families, but with no proven medical treatments against the illness (they mysteriously vanished even when they warded off the miasmas with their gardens’ pleasant herbs), he did not possess the authority to ameliorate the health of his patients. Though he was decked out in the garb of a dottore, it— the cloak, hat, even the ominous visage— meant nothing. The sickness was unlike any the world had seen before. Lucca was, for all practical purposes, powerless.
“Which is her chamber?” Lucca asked, bowing in respect to the homeowner. The burly man, with a thick beard and chest and strong hands, led him through a cramped corridor until the room’s arch was in sight. Lucca told the man to go no further, and in reply he stroked his black whiskers, deep in thought.
“That which ails your daughter is communicable, signior,” Lucca insisted. “If you hold your wife and self in any esteem, you will not follow me further.”
“She is my only daughter, doctor, my most prized joy,” the man pleaded. “Prithee, do what ye can. Can she be saved?”
“I will use the whole of my God-given blessings to assist her,” Lucca said as he pushed past. He did not have black enough a soul to bequeath the full truth.
The first thing the girl saw of Lucca was his vulgar beak.
“Well met, signorina
,” Lucca greeted her through the crack of the empty doorway without observing her visage. “May I enter?”
Lucca’s mass oozed between the door and wall, appearing before the sorry girl. She took no notice of the grisly masque, for in a fit of coughs she spat rich, red blood upon her sheets. Dried stains of the fluid already resided on the fabric. Her raven-black hair was unkempt and stuck to itself, and her face spotted with the same black buboes as had been seen on dozens of others. Her eyes were sunken with sorrow and her chamber pot nearly full. But she seemed in good spirits.
“The cysts do not give me pain,” she said. “I could move about the room if only it were not so cold.”
Buboes. Chills. Lucca used his staff to lift the girl’s arm while she spoke, studying the diseased welts.
“I have been breathing with a mint cloth,” she continued. “Another dottore told me it would lend aid. He had a masque like yours.”
“Mint will only prevent miasmas,” Lucca said. “It will not combat symptoms.” He stood erect, watching over the doomed child.
“Nay,” he continued. “I believe that you have not sinned. Nor are you a Jew. You will not be flogged or burned.” Lucca walked to the end of the bed where his suitcase lied; opening it, he took several vials and presented them to the girl.
“Native figs will soften the swelling, as will onions cooked with yeast and butter. I will have your guardians buy these things in the town forum.”
The girl shook her head. “I am not in want.”
“You are a harpy’s mirror,” Lucca rejoined. “You may eat like a carrion worm but your appetite will never speak out. You will wither away.”
“I will not swallow those base brews!” she replied, though she did grab eagerly for the jar of figs.
“Then you will be bloodletted,” Lucca hissed with a perfect air of mischief. “Allow me to prepare a lancet!” Placing the vials near the girl’s feet on the bed, Lucca began a search through his bag for the implement. Paling, the girl succumbed, reaching for a vial and sniffing the contents. Lucca gave an unseen smile.
“That should indeed give you relief,” he said. Her mouth bursting with fig juice, the girl could only nod.
“Good! I will see you in three days,” Lucca said. “Do you bid me pardon?” The girl nodded again and Lucca swiftly packed his equipment and left the room.
“Doctor,” the girl’s father said, “How is she? How lives my Carlota?”
“I have done what I was taught,” Lucca said. “She is in God’s hands now.”
Lucca watched the faces of the elderly couple. They were not sad; rather, their ridged faces were void of any caricature as if they, themselves, were stricken and hopeless. Carlota’s mother held her hands folded in prayer. Her father rubbed his nose with two fingers and sighed heavily.
“Grazie, signior,” he said. “This house prays for your safety.”
Lucca bowed and left after being paid, distraught over the family’s gratitude. He would be shamed when Carlota died, fully aware that he did nothing but feed her mere sweets. She would likely not be buried in a family plot. She would be buried alongside drunkards and vampires, and vagrants and criminals. Her memory would rot away with the crude wooden crosses staked atop every mass grave, and Lucca believed it his blame. He swore to remove this stain from his soul, God as his witness on that cold night.
Upon walking through his own door, Lucca shed his illicit clothing, head to toe. His robe and hat were hung up, his gloves and leggings stored, his boots dropped. He grabbed a bucket and retrieved water from the rain barrel outside. He lit the stove and placed the water on top to boil.
Lucca’s medical journal entry for that night was not unlike others of the past year. Every day, it seemed, a neighbor died. A friend fled. A mother or father or child surrendered to death’s icy grip. Lucca whittled his pen to a fine point and began to write with midnight ink:
30 March 1630
16 counted dead from miasmas. 1 burned of vampirism. 17 buried
A stray drop fell onto the manuscript and Lucca analyzed the pen’s nib to question it. It held no imperfections. Lucca then sheathed the quill to observe the spot itself; it was not the same shadowy hue as the rest of the text. It was instead a rich shade of crimson. The rich color stood in stark contrast to the paper and ink. Another ruby drop fell onto the page and Lucca looked at his palm.
In the center was a small, black bubo as perfectly round as a pearl embedded in his weak flesh.
Lucca put on his boots and grabbed a small coin-purse from his robe, embarking upon the street wearing the trousers and commoners tunic he had worn beneath it. As he walked, his cheeks were pushed upward in a sad smile. His long hair swayed with the wind, as did his full, slashed sleeves, not hampered by the heavy spirits of the city. Not even death, the ruler of Venice, tried to stop him on his mission.
When he arrived at the church, sweaty and mouth-breathing, Lucca was greeted by Father Alphonso.
“What brings you to the house of God, child?” Father Alphonso said, his brow arched in concern.
Lucca replied by raising a bloody palm, held within it a leather purse of ducats.
“I wish to purchase two burial plots.”