Excerpt from The Mortecarni
The next few days were some of the busiest in my life. I wouldn’t let Hugh into the hospital where he might become infected, so I gave him one of my masks and instructed him to monitor the households of those who had a sick member, providing a list of symptoms to look for. He was to use caution; peer through windows and, where possible, question the inhabitants from a safe distance. This had to be done twice a day.
“But what if they lie about being ill?” Hugh was tying a soaked cloth around his mouth.
“You must try to persuade them. Assure them I’m not only a physician who can care for their earthly bodies, but also a monk who can care for their souls.” Hugh still looked dubious, and I realised he was learning more about the nature of man than I’d thought. “If you believe someone is ill, yet won’t leave their home, report this to me.” I confirmed his mouth covering was tied securely, and sent him on his errand.
Many of my patients had grown worse during the few hours I’d slept. I’d told Macs he should go and rest, but he insisted on helping me with treatment on the worst of the afflicted. I was grateful for both the help and the company, for my mind was clouded with thoughts of the mortecarni I knew I must shortly face. I couldn’t allow such a creature to continue threatening this village, yet I couldn’t leave my patients at this vital point in their care.
I put more wood on the fire and, seeing that many of the patients showed signs of having been bitten by fleas, also placed stibium, suphur, and arsenic onto the flames. I was particularly careful with the stibium; this material was also called ‘monk killer’ as it had caused death when used incorrectly. In small amounts, however, it’d been shown to me in Italy that fleas and other small creature who feast on the blood of men disliked the fumes, as they did sulphur and arsenic. The air in the hospital suddenly smelled of rotted eggs, and my eyes watered for a moment, but the treatment was necessary to spare us all, myself included, from the discomfort of insect bites.
I insisted Macs also wear a vinegar-and-arsenic-soaked cloth, but he refused. “I won’t become ill, brother.”
I spent an hour examining the patients more closely, and was able to determine whose illness had progressed. One man needed immediate help, and I prepared my tools and asked Macs to hold the man down.
He grimaced and turned away in disgust as I opened the shirt and raised the arm, exposing what I’d only partically glimpsed moments before.
“Did I have that?” Macs shuddered.
“Yes, all with the disease show these signs.” I looked more closely at the exposed inner arm. The swelling was about as large as an egg, and bulbous, a greasy pale grey with thin jagged streaks of black and red running beneath the surface. In places a mottled purple pattern had appeared, a bad sign. I took a small knife from my bag and, glancing up at Macs to ensure the patient was being held firmly, made a small cut into the buboe.
The man groaned but didn’t move. The cut had little effect and I knew I’d have to soften the growth in order to drain the infection. Taking a cloth I’d soaked in boiled water, I pressed it into the lump and held it firm for many minutes. When the cloth was cold I took it away and tried the knife again, cutting a little deeper into the skin that had been forced to stretch to accommodate the swelling. This time a thick green pus seeped out of the opening, slowly at first then more freely as I squeezed the growth with my cloth-wrapped hand.
Macs continued to look away but was still able to hold the patient as I continued to squeeze the infection out of the man. It took many pieces of cloth to wipe away the fluid, and once I was done I put them aside to be burned. I cleaned the wound and applied a poultice; there wasn’t much more I could do. Once the procedure was done I insisted Macs rest and was amused, despite the circumstances, that this time he didn’t argue. His face showed the disgust he’d felt during the draining, but he’d performed his role admirably and deserved a rest.
It was late in the afternoon; Hugh was away and Macs hadn’t returned, so I was alone in the hospice. The patients were asleep, and I’d already cleaned my work area and prepared more cloth, so I found myself with time to think. I was so engrossed in my thoughts I didn’t notice that someone else had come into the barn until it was too late. I heard a coarse groaning sound, wet with longing, and the shuffling noise that accompanied it.
I turned and saw him, not ten feet from me, a mortecarni now confirmed. The smell of the sulphur had covered the stench I knew accompanied the creature, and I cursed myself for not paying attention, even if only for a short time. As it inched closer I saw the bulk it’d carried in life and the injuries it sported: a torn left shoulder, the arm hanging by glistening sinew, and a large cut on the thigh, running with corruption and wriggling with bloated grey maggots.