Spoilers/TW: This takes place during the bubonic plague and there will be character death. Sensitive readers be advised.
The scent of death hung in the air. From beneath his shroud of dark linen, doctor’s bag in hand, he could see that the patient was already gone. He had just been summoned within the hour. It had been the fifth body he’d seen today, all of them unbreathing, all of them fresh indemise.
Kiringa told himself that he couldn’t do anything to help them except perhaps comfort them and pray with them. He could still do that—pray, anyway. Whether his words would actually reach the ears of God was another story altogether. But he didn’t dwell on it much in these times. He had spent the last few weeks in the guild hall of the doctors of Florence, following them around one by one until he had a clear idea of what was being done for the poor souls of Italy in the year of our Lord 1345.
Yes, he had arrived in Florence in time to meet the plague.
He did so with an unflinching gaze of autumn-colored eyes, a mixture of yellow and orange, brown and a touch of red. He dressed in dark browns and black, so that the city’s mixture of dirt and filth would agree better with his look. He told himself that the plague might take him too. He knew it was a lie.
He knew, because he couldn’t speak it aloud, even in his empty guild room.
He also knew that there was no cure.
He knew, because unlike his little lie, it gave his tongue no trouble. His lips parted and the words flowed through like water.
But back to the body in the room of death.
The Mortal Plague had struck again, here and elsewhere—knocking out entire swaths of the population.
“You poor soul,” he murmured through his veil. He turned away and was greeted with a cat purring at his legs. “And you will need to find a new master.” The cat nearly shrugged and wandered lazily over to its master, batting at his forehead and nose. “No.” Kiringa picked up the cat and took it over to where a trencher on the floor had been set out for it. He quickly looked for something—anything—in the pantry. It had a half-eaten sausage, some cheese, and a crust of bread. He took the sausage and laid it in the bowl.
But by then the cat was back batting at its master and yowling. His heart ached for the poor creature. “I can’t keep you. The guild doesn’t allow pets.”
A few hours later, Kiringa stood at the doors of an orphanage, cat eating sausage bits from his gloved fingers. He had taken the liberty of grooming the creature to make it presentable, to the point of cleansing it every way he could think to do, but he still doubted that he had enough pull with the orphanage owner to put in a special request.
A little girl with blond wispy hair opened the door. “Mama Jocelyn, Mama Jocelyn, come here, come here!” she shrieked and scurried into the semi-darkened room lit with candles. “We have a visitor Mama!”
Mama Jocelyn, a stout woman with a round face and homely visage, looked Kiringa up and down from a corner of the room. “You’re too old, age down a few years and maybe I’ll see you as one of my children.”
“Oh come now, Mama Jocelyn, surely you would recognize one of your very own children. He raised the veil. “Granted I only lived with you for a—”
Jocelyn swept him into a hug. “Kiringa, saints be.”
Quite the opposite, thought Kiringa to himself. “I brought you a gift to keep the rats away. You’ll want to keep the rats far, FAR away from the children.” He thought briefly about how the cat could catch fleas, too, but didn’t want to dwell on it. Instead, he set the cat on the ground, where it immediately began to sniff its new surroundings. “I don’t know what name it answers to, so you’ll have to settle on a new name.”
“Stinky,” suggested one child.
“He’s not stinky, you are,” said another child. “We should call it Xavier.”
“It’s a girl,” volunteered Kiringa. “So girl names.”
“Flora,” said the blonde one.
“Lisbet,” suggested another child.
Kiringa looked up. “It looks like my gift was a success, it’ll give you something to talk about.” Mama Jocelyn was looking him over with a piercing gaze. “Oh no. I know that look. What’s wrong.”
“You’re around children too much,” countered Kiringa. But she was right. He hadn’t changed his appearance since he stepped out of her shadowy doorstep into the streets of Florence to seek out a new occupation. It was by luck that he was inducted into the doctor’s guild: the right patron at the right time sort of scenario.
Mama Jocelyn harrumphed. “Look at the children, all in a tizzy over a mangy mouth to feed.”
Kiringa sighed. Sometimes she couldn’t be pleased. Sometimes you had to see past the grumpiness to get to the part of her that had welcomed him into her fold. “It doesn’t have mange, or fleas, at least not at the moment.” Worry had begun to shake him. He didn’t believe in omens, good or ill, but he began to regret having brought the cat to his previous caretaker. “I couldn’t abandon it. So I did my best to see to it that it wouldn’t bring bad luck to your children during the plague. It’s been… sanitized.”
The word drew a strange gaze from Mama Jocelyn, but she seemed to accept it. For the moment, she nodded and a soft look came about her. “You have done well for yourself. New clothes, I see.”
The would-be physician turned a circle and splayed out his hands. “This? I only wear it when visiting friends. You should see my work garb. It’s leather and roughspun fabric.”
“And what is it that you do now?”
“I’m a healer of sorts. Though this plague… I can’t say I’ve seen the likes of it in person before.” He quickly shook his head. “I know you think I’m young, but…”
Mama Jocelyn waved a hand. “You always were an odd sort of child. Savant really. Sometimes an idiot savant.”
Kiringa cringed a bit. It was hard to pretend to be young after being old for so long. Sometimes it didn’t make a lot of sense to those who witnessed it. “Ha ha. Yes.” He looked around the room. “Has the plague been here yet?”
“No, but my baker and butcher both were taken ill by this awful disease,” Mama Jocelyn said, rising to her feet and wandering around the circle of children following the cat. “If it does come here, we’ll all be dead.”
Kiringa wanted to disagree. With every fiber he wanted to say, “No, don’t think that way.” But the “No” couldn’t pass his lips, so the rest of it tumbled out. “Don’t think that way.”
“And why shouldn’t I?” Mama Jocelyn stood as tall as she could, hands on her hips. “I hear the groaning of the city in my nightmares, Kiringa. It’s as though the world is full of madness and we’re in the thick of it.”
All he could do was nod. So he did. Mama Jocelyn saw him out. He gave a last glance at the cat, something tugging at him that it was a bad idea, no matter how carefully he had cleansed it, but he felt he couldn’t take it back now.
A week later, a message was left for him at the guild from Mama Jocelyn. Three of the children had fallen ill. Guilt climbed its way through his frame and he excused himself from his guild duties to spend time with the orphans at the orphanage.
“I came as soon as I heard,” he said to Mama Jocelyn upon arriving. He rarely was at a loss for breath, but he had run straight from the guild with no stopping. He would have flown, had it been night. But with it being just past noon, there were too many people who would have noticed a seraphim in the sky. “I need you to separate the ill from the healthy. I know you have three rooms – your room, the loft, and the play room. I’ll help you move some of the beds into the play room.”
“Surely you must have more to do than-” Mama Jocelyn stalled her voice as Kiringa put up a hand.
“I’m responsible. And even if I’m not responsible and the children were going to get sick eventually, I’d still potentially be seeing your children as patients. So here I am, a quiet live-in doctor. I don’t want you to think of this as an intrusion. I want to try to see them through this.” He looked at Mama Jocelyn in askance. “Please. I don’t… I don’t know what else to do except be here for them.”
“Of course.” The caretaker of the children hadn’t seen him so broken before in the years that he had lived with her. She dusted off her hands and said, “Well then. The beds, then the children.”
As good as his word, Kiringa moved a select few toys out of the play room to keep the other children busy. He scooped up the cat, now named Antoinette, and brought it into the play room with the children. “If we’re going to be quarantining, you’re going to be in here with us. Forty days in solitary.”
He left explicit instructions with Mama Jocelyn on how to leave food for them, and to empty waste for both the well children and sick children. He also had her boil water in a kettle once a day for him to sanitize his tools with if they were used.
In the end, there were five sick children, two joining the three that had fallen ill. Sergio, Amira, Leonardo, Rapunzel, and the blond girl Lisbet.
Leonardo was the quietest, Lisbet the loudest. Sergio kept trying to sneak out of bed. Antoinette took turns sleeping with all six of the inhabitants of the room, but spent the most time with Rapunzel and Amira, who ended up sharing a bed: one facing one direction, the other sleeping at the opposite end.
Kiringa slept on blankets on a matted rug. He didn’t dream so much as close his eyes and think back, trying to steal more days for the children in the room. The plague was awful—sweats, boils, nausea. If he hadn’t been immune, he told himself, he would have stayed with the children or died trying to save them.
Lisbet half-demanded it from her bed, calling him the pet name that she had decided on that day. He had been Kir, Ranga, Ringaling, and RiRi at different times depending on Lisbet’s mood.
“Yes, please, a story,” said the other children in overlapping voices. Kiringa smiled and sighed.
Settling onto the rug and tossing his blanket around his shoulders like a cape, he started with, “Once upon a time,” and then changed his mind. “No, wait, I think I know a better one. You have to close your eyes, though.” He stood up and adjusted the blanket. “You too, Sergio. I see you with your eyes open. Close them! Go on.” He waited until all of the children had their eyes closed.
“In a time before the earth, there was only heaven, and heaven was infinite. It was populated by beings that were a mixture of good and not good, as they were made to be perfect, and anything made to be perfect will have fractures at some point, even if only the creator sees them. But these imperfect children populated the heavens and dwelled in each other’s company and in the company of the creator.”
“One day, the creator was dissatisfied with being alone in his heavens, and he stretched his hand out and created the waters that the holy scriptures begin with. So then there was Heaven, The angels, The Creator, and the waters that the creator moved over. And while heaven was perfect, the creator found he could not stop creating. So he went on to pull mighty mountains and plateaus from deep beneath the water, say some of the scriptures. And it was like that, but not.”
He realized he was getting into semantics.
“But in heaven, the angels grew restless with the creator’s need to create. A rebellion occurred, and to punish those who rebelled, the Creator cast them out of the perfection that was heaven, to a prison of cold darkness away from Heaven’s light.” He shrugged off the blanket. Walking around the room, he checked the children’s foreheads for fever one by one as they slept. When he came to Amira, he found that she wasn’t breathing.
“No,” he softly said. “Please.” His eyes turned up in askance to the one who had abandoned him on earth after the rebellion, the creator. “Please bring her back.” He picked up Amira in his arms, cradling her in the darkness. It was still a week before the quarantine was over.
In the morning, the children mourned their friend. Mama Jocelyn found out the news talking through the door. Kiringa was at a loss. He knew that he couldn’t keep her body in the room without it becoming a distraction for the other children, but also didn’t want to leave the room.
Rapunzel was not asleep when he left. She watched him unfurl his wings and open the window. “Kiringa?” she asked, not believing.
Caught between his human charge and celestial change, Kiringa turned with bright eyes and put a finger to his lips. “Sleep.”
The child fainted. He carried her to her bed, then gathered Amira’s body in his arms and took flight.
In the end, he buried Amira in a shallow grave and returned through the front door. Mama Jocelyn asked only where Amira had been buried, and was given a soft reply. She watched him walk up the stairs to the playroom in silence.
Kiringa went to Rapunzel’s bedside and brushed a lock of hair away from her face. He’d been exposed before, but was never able to tell what children would or wouldn’t say.
On the last days of quarantine, the color started to return to their cheeks and their sores had begun to heal. Cautious as ever, Kiringa insisted that although they felt better, they were to remain on bedrest until every last one of them were free of fever and nausea for three extra weeks.
Now certain that Antoinette wouldn’t be a carrier as long as she stayed inside with the children, Kiringa’s conscience was eased as he opened the door to let both cat and children free into the rest of the house. “And be good to each other,” he added as he helped Mama Jocelyn return toys to the playroom and beds to the children’s room. “You don’t know how long you have with each other.”
“Kiringa, are you really leaving us?” Lisbet pouted and hugged the doll that she hadn’t been able to keep with her during quarantine.
“I won’t be far. I’ll be at the guild hall and helping take care of other poor souls during the plague. Stay safe. Stay indoors. And if it returns, I’ll be back.”
“You have my word.” He knelt down and gave her a hug. “Be good for Mama Jocelyn.” He raised his eyes to the rest of the children. “All of you, be good.”
The children all gathered around him and Lisbet, then they all hugged him.
Mama Jocelyn chuckled. “All right, all right, who wants lunch.” A chorus of “aye” and “me” rose up from the children, and Kiringa nodded at Mama Jocelyn on the way out. “Take care of them, and send word if it happens again.”
She waved him on, and out the door, into the bright streets of Florence went Kiringa.