Pietro watched the distant spots of light by the harbour swim before his eyes while he waited for death. He was lying on the roof of the little houseboat because inside everyone was dead. He couldn’t remember how long he’d been sick, but this was his second night on the roof. At night the air was cool and it calmed him to watch the spots of light and try to count them, but during the day he lay roasting in the heat and he had finished all the drinking water a long time ago.
As if hypnotized he observed the lights by the harbour move back and forth. They moved even more than the night before. Pietro repeatedly lost count of them but it didn’t matter much. He watched as the dots of light gathered into four groups which then began to come closer and closer. He couldn’t see them clearly because there was still blood dripping from his eyes, but when the wind brought him the smell of burning torches, that was when he got scared. Pietro pushed himself up and immediately felt too vulnerable on the roof, too visible. The nausea was overwhelming but he pulled himself to the edge of the roof and let himself fall down to the deck. He looked wistfully at the sea but was afraid he couldn’t swim, that he would sink as a stone the moment he touched the water.
Pietro pulled his sleeve forward, put it in front of his face and stepped inside. He didn’t look around but went straight to the little corner table, swept away the embroidered tablecloth along with pots of dead plants and tried to pull the table out onto the deck. It was so heavy he had to use both hands and he made a face because of the smell. From behind a curtain he could see the double bed, the smaller one he had shared with his brother and feet peeking out from a blanket. Pietro closed his eyes and pulled stubbornly at the table.
He got stuck in the doorway. The table was too wide to fit through. Panting, he managed to turn it upside down and began to unscrew its legs, one by one. The effort had caused the blood to pulse faster again, it ran in a quick stream from his mouth and nose and his ears were wet and sticky. Then he still had to push the table top onto its edge, drag it outside and drop it from the deck. He threw himself after it.
The water felt cool. When Pietro resurfaced he heard someone call not far away and looked around. At the end of the lane there was a rowing boat approaching. All the men aboard covered their faces with a large mask that looked like a bird’s beak.. Anyone not rowing carried a flaming torch which they put to each house they passed. Whenever the boatmen saw an open door or window they flung the fire inside.
Pietro tried to keep as much under the water as possible and hurried under the stilts that kept the houses above the water. He knew his way out of the neighbourhood but took a complicated route to keep under the houses and avoid the houseboats that offered no shelter. The burning houses above his head moaned and creaked and twice he could hear someone call for help. The fire roared in a house opposite him, the front stilts gave way and the house started to lean forward. The doors opened and a heap of litter slid onto the veranda and into the sea: A pair of boots, a rocking horse and a bucket full of crockery and plates.
When Pietro got to the very edge of the neighbourhood the lights at the harbour were in clear view, not too far away. He wrapped his legs around a stilt under one of the houses and clung to it, though he could see on the edge of his vision others swimming straight to shore. But he didn’t dare to let go, not until the fire forced him to; only then did Pietro allow the current to carry him towards land. The one time he looked back there was nothing to see but flames reaching towards the sky, reflected in the sea. There was nothing left of his neighbourhood.
The undercurrent brought the table top closer and closer to the harbour and with every moment Pietro became more afraid. On the pier a bonfire was burning; it cast a flickering light on the fierce mob on shore and the exhausted people who swam below them. The swimmers tried desperately to get a hold on the stilts that supported the pier but the mob hurried towards each and every one, armed with poles, and pushed them back under the surface. Someone holding a small child leaned towards one of the pillars and tried to keep the child’s head above the water. Immediately the poles struck, the swimmer lost his grip and his head and the child’s disappeared under the water. Three poles rushed in to push them down, deeper and deeper. When they finally let go the swimmer floated up again, his arms empty. A low, victorious whisper went through the mob on the pier but it was soon followed by silence. There was still work to do.
Pietro had seen enough. He trod water and tried to push against the wave that brought him closer to the light of the bonfire with every moment. He had no time to loose, soon the men with the bird beaks would return to shore and he would be caught in the middle. Pietro kicked against the current but soon realized that the table top was no longer any help, it was slowing him down.
He didn’t dare look over his shoulder but thought he could hear the splashing of oars. He hastily let go of the table top and dived under the surface of the water. It was too dark for him to see even his own hands, but he struck a course away from the city, toward the rocky strip of land that connected the old lighthouse with the mainland. Pietro had swum ashore with the other kids a thousand times, ever since he was little, but now he felt weaker than a baby, far too weak to fight against the waves that struck his face every time he came up for air. He had no idea how far he had gone, because the lighthouse was dark and had been so for many years.
Every time Pietro went under he couldn’t help the feeling that even while he moved hands and feet he was sinking helplessly down to the bottom of the ocean. That was why he jumped when his foot suddenly hit something and he surfaced, gasping for air. He had arrived at the shore. Pietro didn’t know if he had reached the right place because of the complete darkness surrounding him. But no one was waiting for him, he was safe. He stood up and stumbled across the wet stones covered in seaweed, for so long that he thought he must have arrived at the right place. Even when Pietro had dry land under his feet, he still forced himself to continue walking. The tide was coming in and he had no idea how far up the sea would rise. Finally he could walk no more and collapsed between two rocks. His chest was heaving, he coughed and there was both water and blood running from his nose. He squinted eastwards, where on the other side of the city a pink veil had appeared in the sky. Day was coming. He leaned on the rock behind him, breathed deeply and turned his back to the sea. Then he fell asleep.
When he woke the sun was high in the sky. Pietro stood up and his whole body ached. He touched his mouth and nose but there was nothing, no blood. He felt dizzy with hunger but there was nothing to be done about that. He barely cast his eyes in the direction of the run-down lighthouse, made a protective sign on his forehead and then headed to the city. The shore was rocky but it didn’t take him long to find the old path. Above shore the country was barren and harsh, where nothing grew except scraggly bushes. By the side of the main road there were still abandoned workhouses and old storage shelters.
It was a long walk to the city and Pietro felt as if the houses would never get closer. He was so thirsty that every once in a while he took a sip from a ditch by the road but the water was so dirty he didn’t dare drink his fill. The blazing sun was straight above his head so he covered himself with a large clump of seaweed and concentrated on the outlines of the houses at the edge of the city. He didn’t want to think, so he counted instead. The curves of the road, the seagulls, his own heartbeat. Then he added, subtracted and multiplied until he ended up with an appealing number. He had to stop repeatedly to rest but there was no blood, he still didn’t have so much as a nosebleed.
It was late in the afternoon when Pietro arrived at the first two-storey houses and paved streets. He walked with care, no one had lived here for years and doors and windows gaped empty into the street. He ran to the first water-post he saw and put all his weight on the iron handle. The pump still worked; at first the water fell green and smelly into the stone basin but after a while it filled up with clear water. Pietro gulped it down and then he stripped. He washed himself and his clothes as well as he could. The bloodstains and the salt smell would give him away.
The air now had a definite chill to it but Pietro put the soaking clothes back on. He considered sleeping on the pavement stones during the night but the empty houses and gaping windows filled him with dread. Abandoned houses brought bad luck. He could also feel his hunger growing despite having filled his stomach with water; it had been many days since he had last eaten. Pietro continued through the narrow streets and was no longer sure where he was. But little by little the houses became larger; the bricks were whole and the walls whitewashed. Light was visible in some of the windows and dogs in backyards barked at him when he passed.
From one of the gardens Pietro could hear not the barking of dogs but human speech and he hesitated. Between the house in front of him and the next there was a narrow little alley. He walked quietly into it and ran his hands over the garden wall, until he could feel a weathered wooden door under his fingers. He put his ear carefully to the door and listened to what the people on the other side were saying.
“You don’t even know what this plague is like! And it’s impossible that it will reach the city. It’s said they put the whole stinking neighbourhood on fire and every living soul with it,” a man’s voice said heavily. “May the spirits show them mercy,” he added.
“I’ve also heard that some of them managed to swim over and were drowned in the harbour,” someone answered stubbornly.
“Exactly. Drowned–in–the–harbour,” said another voice that sounded younger than the other two. “They couldn’t reach the shore, can’t you get that into your head?”
“And now lie rotting in the water! How can you imagine we’re safe?”
“What, are you telling me you regularly go for a swim in the inner harbour? Or for a refreshing sip of seawater? There is always a corpse or two in the harbour anyway. The current will wash them away within the week and until then, everyone knows better than to go there,” the youngest voice answered.
“The coastline is long,” the other one kept on. “How do you know no one got away?”
Pietro’s heart was beating madly and he pushed his ear closer to the door to hear better. That was when he realized that the doors opened inwards into the garden. The door gave away with a screeching sigh, he lost his balance and collapsed like a sack of potatoes into the yard and landed flat on the paved garden path.
In the garden, three men were sitting around a fire and his sudden entrance had caught them in the act of peeling potatoes. At first they were stunned. Then they began to cast each other quick glances and purse their lips. Before Pietro had time to gather himself together they had began to giggle and then laugh. Three ragged men, roaring with laugher, was the last thing he saw before he passed out.
When he regained consciousness he had been laid on the grass besides the fire and felt comfortably warm. Over the fire the men had put a little pot and from it came the smell of fried potatoes and sausages.
“Have you woken up, poor thing?” asked the man who looked the oldest in the group. It was him that Pietro had first heard speaking.
“Yes,” answered Pietro. He could not remember when he had last spoken and his voice sounded odd. He cleared his throat. “Do you live here?” His voice still sounded just as strange.
“No, this house is empty. You should not go in there. What’s your name?”
For some reason he decided to lie. “David,” he muttered. “And you?”
They introduced themselves; the oldest was called Jafet, the youngest Cardo and the third one, who had so stubbornly doubted the end of the plague, was Nicholas.
Jafet took the pot from the fire and laughed when he noticed how Pietro stared at the food. “Easy now, it has to cool down. Do you come from far away?”
“From the farmland then?”
Pietro looked down on his hands and answered: “Yes.”
“And what drives you here?” asked Nicholas, put a spoon into the pot and passed it to Pietro.
“Nothing there but dirt,” Pietro answered vaguely, with his mouth full of mashed potatoes.
“And nothing here but empty houses and ghosts,” Cardo added with contempt. “An empty harbour, rotting ships and lunatics with fancy names behind towering walls. What are you hoping to find here?”
Pietro shrugged and handed the pot and the spoon back to Nicholas.
“Stop discouraging the boy,” Jafet said grumpily. “There’s plenty to do in the city for kids. They can always look for shelter in the House of Exchangers.”
“Yeah, what a shame we’re not ten anymore,” said Cardo. “Then perhaps we could find something to do. How old are you anyways?” he asked Pietro.
“Twelve. What’s the House of Exchangers?” Pietro asked and hoped he sounded curious enough.
“They’ll accept you immediately,” Jafet said optimistically and took the pot from Cardo. They passed the food between themselves and took special care to give enough to Pietro. “You must have lived far up-river since you’ve never heard about the House of Exchangers.”
Pietro mumbled something and scraped up the last remains from the pot. It hadn’t been much for four.
“It’s this immense house by the most illustrious avenue of the city. That’s where rich men used to exchange their money, while there was still any money in this city. But for more than three centuries no one but children has lived in the house and as soon as they turn sixteen, they must go. Until then they protect each other and all children that run away from home or lose their parents can seek them out. Somehow they always manage, no matter what.”
“I heard there’s a new leader,” Nicholas said absent-mindedly. “Very smart. Now they supposedly focus on activities that fall slightly outside of the law.”
“The only thing that makes any sense,” Cardo said and stretched on the ground, wrapped in a blanket.
Jafet dug around in his bag for a blanket and threw it over to Pietro.
“Thanks. Thanks a lot,” he mumbled and spread the blanket as close to the dying embers as possible, in the hope that his wet clothes might dry. Then he relaxed and fell asleep, listening to the sound of crickets and the low whispering of the three men.
He awoke feeling rested and his face felt warm under the rays of the sun. But that was not what had woken him up.
“You must have hit your head on something in your sleep,” he could hear Cardo saying with surprise in his voice.
“There’s always something or other the matter with you, Nicholas,” Jafet complained.
“I don’t know,” Nicholas answered hesitantly, “I feel sort of queasy.”
Pietro sat up without daring to breathe. Nicholas was sitting with his eyes closed, leaning towards the wall with his head craned backwards. Blood came cascading from his nose, down to his dark beard and dirty shirt. Cardo tried without success to staunch it with an old tobacco-cloth.
Both Jafet and Cardo looked around when they heard Pietro move and Nicholas opened his eyes to squint at him.
“Demons!” he screamed. “Now it’s coming from my eyes as well,” and there was fear in his voice.
Pietro stood up and opened his mouth but couldn’t say a word. At the worst time possible he felt a familiar feeling and tried, without success, to inhale what he felt coming. A drop of blood fell on the dusty ground. Then another and another and he became faint with fear.
“The boy’s also got a nosebleed!” Cardo exclaimed, dropped the cloth on the ground and jumped towards Pietro. Pietro backed away but Cardo grabbed his hair and smelled his scalp. “Salt!” he yelled. “The damned rat smells of salt. Just came from the farmland, sure enough. He’s one of the trash from the sea and he’s brought the plague with him!”
Nicholas turned pale with fear.
“You lied to us! Jafet yelled accusingly. “We gave you our food and you lied to us! Just look at him, you’ve killed him.”
Nicholas had quietly started to recite prayers but his voice was shaking and from between his lips the blood had started to burst forwards.
Pietro tried to say something but felt paralysed. Cardo still had a firm grip on his hair but with his other hand he reached for a knife. “The best thing would be to slit your throat before you run away and contaminate any others,” he spat out and pointed the knife to Pietro’s throat.
Pietro could feel the blood trickling down the inside of his throat, he craned his head back and spat it out on the man’s chest. Cardo reeled, dropped the knife and let go of Pietro so violently that he hit the ground. Pietro threw the knife as far away as he could and stumbled to his feet. “If you touch me again I’ll spit into your eyes!” he screamed at Cardo in a voice he couldn’t recognize as his own.
Cardo didn’t bother to answer, he was too busy ripping off the bloodstained shirt. Neither did he try to help Nicholas any further – he was now sitting abandoned by the garden wall. That was when Pietro realized that Jafet wasn’t by Nicholas’ side either. Pietro turned around but it was too late. Jafet was standing by the gate.
“We can’t allow you to leave this garden, boy,” he said apologetically. “Death is with you.” He reached for his own knife.
Pietro looked around in despair. By the garden wall there was a tall and broad oak tree. Without hesitating he ran towards it and started to climb up its trunk. With an angry shout the men hurried after him and tried to grab his feet to pull him down. Pietro could no longer defend himself by spitting at them but it helped that the men did not seem very eager to touch him. He could feel a half-hearted grab at his feet and then he was out of reach. He pulled himself up the trunk of the tree and scrabbled at the bark with his bare feet. Finally he was high enough to step out onto the edge of the frail-looking garden wall. This had only taken a brief moment but the men were no longer standing under the tree. They had gone out of the garden, waited for him on the path below and believed they had cornered him, that he could not get anywhere from his position up on the wall.
But they were wrong. The part of the wall that Pietro was standing on was parallel to the path that led onto the next garden wall and the one beyond that, from garden to garden down the whole street, across to other gardens in other streets. This maze of walls was three meters tall, in some places covered in ivy and the mortar was crumbling. Pietro would have preferred to crawl his way on all fours but instead forced himself to run on the narrow ledge, out of the city.
The men followed him yelling, “Plague carrier, plague carrier!” as loud as they could but many of the streets and paths on the ground were dead ends, while the maze of walls continued ever on, so Pietro was soon far ahead. Still he didn’t dare slow down or climb off the wall because he didn’t believe they had given up. More likely,they had gathered more people to hunt him down and kill him, just like they had done to the people in the harbour. Most of the gardens Pietro went past were empty and abandoned, but in some laundry had been hung out to dry and sometimes he saw people who looked at him in wonder. Someone laughed and waved but Pietro didn’t respond. All those people would give him away if they were asked if they’d seen a young boy with a bleeding nose.
The wall often led him astray but Pietro always took care to head in the direction that led back out of the city. He soon recognized the houses at the edge of town, but there the wall could not be trusted and he was forced to go down to the ground. Cardo and Jafet were nowhere to be seen.
Pietro was back on the unpaved country road that led out of the city, and to the lighthouse. He was not cured like he’d thought when he awoke the day before; the blood dripped in a steady stream. In order not to leave a trail of bloodstains for others to follow he took off his jersey, jumbled it together and held it in front of his nose. His throat and ears were aching with suppressed sobs and he waited for the tears to come. When they didn’t, he started to scream. The sound came muffled through the cloth of the jersey, but he kicked at the pebbles on the road and screamed, at the seagulls in the air, at the abandoned workhouses and the waves in the sea.
The blood only ran quicker with the effort, and eventually Pietro stopped screaming and shook with dry sobs. He should have let himself sink into the sea, burn on the roof. What had it all been for if he was going to die anyway? I lied to them, Pietro thought. I lied to them and I killed them.
He would never go back to the city, he would hide and die alone. When he turned around and looked back it seemed as if a group of people had gathered at the edge of the city. Again he was chased. Pietro started to run but could feel right away that this time he would not get far. Even if he barely moved forwards the pain in his side was about to finish him. At the top of a small hill he caught his foot and smashed into the ground. Pietro pushed himself up and looked over his shoulder. There was no doubt. It was a group of people and they carried fire, even though the day was bright and there was no need for light. He hurried down the hill and as soon as he thought he was out of sight for a moment he tied the jersey around his head and forced himself to sprint down to the rocky shore, as far away from the road as possible. There he squeezed himself between two large rocks.
He lay there for a long time without hearing anything, for so long that he had caught his breath again and his position between the rocks had become extremely uncomfortable. But they travelled faster than he had done, much faster. First he could hear the sound of hoofs that stopped briefly on the hill. Then someone yelled: “Let’s go! We can’t allow him to get away. The others can make sure he’s not hiding by the road.” Then they galloped away.
Pietro forced himself to wait until the sound of hoofs had died away before he peeked from behind the rocks. There was no one to be seen. He left the jersey behind, scrambled from the cleft in the rocks and half-stumbled, half-ran into the sea. He splashed into the water and dragged himself further out by grabbing the rocky bottom. He felt as if searching eyes pierced his back the whole way until he was deep enough to swim under the surface.
Pietro had swum more than he had walked during his life but now he was so tired, despite the night’s rest, that he had to surface often to breathe. At first he kept looking back but when he finally saw a large group of people on the road, with cloths tied around their faces and torches in their hands, he no longer dared to waste any time. He swam diagonally westwards in the direction of the lighthouse. The tide was high now and it was impossible to reach the lighthouse by foot. Pietro could only hope that they would not come there, that the threat of the place would keep them away.
Despite the undercurrent he managed to reach the islet where the lighthouse stood; the tide had now separated it from the mainland. When Pietro came up to the cliff face he held on to it for his dear life while the waves slammed against him. He allowed himself to be carried upwards on the crest of a tall wave and edged further up the cliff face, his bare feet sliding on the slippery seaweed and his nails braking on the stone; he scratched and cut himself but in the end he got there. The lighthouse towered menacingly over him. On every floor there were four small windows facing each direction but on the ground floor two windows guarded the door. The peak of the lighthouse, however, had been completely made from expensive glass that had now all disappeared. Pietro counted the storeys, there were eleven of them. Eleven, he thought. How could they be so stupid as to make them eleven? Without realizing it he made a protective sign on his forehead.
It was a long way but Pietro went crawling. He was in no hurry and there was no reason to risk being seen by searching eyes on the mainland. He crawled around the lighthouse until the building was between him and the shore. He didn’t look towards the sea but sat on his knees by the lighthouse and laid his forehead to the wall. The sun was high and Pietro was grateful for the shadow that the lighthouse cast over him. He was dizzy and felt nauseous. In order not to have to think he closed his eyes and counted each breath he took. The day passed and the shadow from the lighthouse moved inch by inch until it had left Pietro completely exposed to the mild evening sun. The wind had increased and suddenly Pietro blinked and looked around. The day had passed, he was numb from sitting in the same position all day and he had repeatedly lost his count.
Why was it taking so long? Pietro laid down by the wall which was now covered in red-brown streaks, spots and smudges. He touched his face carefully, he was still bleeding, slowly but relentlessly. He wanted to wash his face but most of all to have something to drink. As the evening wore on he got a fever, his ears were buzzing and he couldn’t help himself from retching. He hardly noticed that the weather got steadily worse. It was getting colder and windier and the clouds were gathering, the sky had turned dark-grey and even if there was no lightning yet, there was the regular sound of thunder.
At midnight everything had turned pitch-black and the wind was so strong that Pietro absent-mindedly pulled his shirt over his head to cover his ears, leaving his back bare to the wind that came blowing from the sea. The wind finally drove him to shelter on the other side of the lighthouse, by the doors. But the relief was only temporary: the sky lit up with lightning, accompanied by a deafening sound, and a hailstorm struck. The tempest was directly above him.
Pietro was scared of thunderstorms like everyone he had known. They were infested with evil spirits. He didn’t know which he should choose, the horror outside or the threat that lived in abandoned houses, especially this one. He stood up and grabbed the doorknob, he pulled and pushed, but nothing happened. In the sudden flash from a lightning Pietro saw that the door had been locked with three fortified locks of copper. He let go of the door as if he’d burned himself and was immediately blown over by the wind. Lightning flashed across the sky, the thunder followed instantly and the hail that struck the back of his head was the size of pebbles.
The windows on both sides of the door had been covered with shutters that had been nailed down, but over the right window a small piece of the shutter had come loose. Pietro grabbed the wood frantically, he was weak but panicking and the wood was rotten with age. It snapped in his hands. Pietro threw the pieces away and started to pull at the rest of the shutter. Behind it was a glass-pane, to Pietro’s great surprise. With no respect for this expensive material he took off his shirt, wrapped it around his hand and smashed the glass into bits. Then he cleaned the largest shards from the windowsill, lifted himself up and squeezed through the narrow, high window.
He crashed into the floor head first and didn’t dare to move, not even to sweep away the pieces of glass underneath him or shake the shards from his shirt. Pietro simply pushed his back against the wall, squeezed the shirt between his hands and stared frozen into the dark room. The wind blew in through the open window and stirred up the stuffy air that smelled of soot. Once in a while lightning lit up the room and each time he caught sight for a few moments of a large, round room and in its centre a broad circular staircase. The effects of the fire that had raged there could be seen everywhere.
The storm roared outside but Pietro was so ill he only heard it as if submerged in water; his fever had gone up and his bones ached. His breath came in wheezy gasps, occasionally he swallowed the blood that now came in a steady stream and he heaved. The worst of all would be to die in here. All through the night his fever and the darkness combined in creating monsters to haunt him, frightful outlines that he feared had come closer every time new lightning lit up the room.
The night passed and dawn came but his fever did not relent. Even though the thunderstorm had settled the wind still howled with all its might and moaned at the broken window. The grey light inside the room only added to Pietro’s fear and he didn’t know which was worse, to stare at the burnt furniture or close his eyes. It was as if the wind was blowing with increased strength rather than giving way and suddenly Pietro had an absurd idea. That the threat didn’t come from within the room but from the outside. As if someone were standing outside the window above his head. Pietro drove the thought away, his imagination had tortured him enough during the night. The wall was behind him, cold and solid, and he tried to calm down.
Then the doorknob moved. Pietro caught his breath and stared at it paralysed. At that instant the wind went mad and crashed howling into the lighthouse. Heavy blows struck the door, blows that no human being could inflict. The door trembled and shivered, it creaked until it suddenly burst open and smashed into the wall, an inch from Pietro’s head. The wind rushed in with a horrible shriek and threw up litter, unrecognisable from soot and decay, that circled the room and smashed against the walls.
A woman entered. She walked slowly into the room and stared straight ahead. Her clothes were untouched by the wind that drove the litter in the room to circle all around her head; down her back lay bright red hair tied in a thick braid. At the ruins of the circular staircase she came to a stop. If only she would continue upstairs, upstairs, something screamed within Pietro.
As if she’d heard him the woman turned around and looked straight into his eyes. The wind intensified even further, her hair came loose from the braid and encircled her face. She walked towards Pietro and continued to drill into his mind with her wide open, blue-grey eyes that seemed the origin of all that storm. Pietro opened his mouth in a scream that never left his lips, crushed the shirt that was still wrapped around his right hand between his fingers, then he pushed it to his chest and tried to raise himself up to his elbows. But the woman had come closer, she bent down with an open mouth and outstretched hand. Pietro raised the shirt up with both hands as if to defend himself but the delicate hand went straight through it and the cloth fell to the ground in pieces.
His horizon was nothing but that red hair and grey eyes. The outstretched hand came to a stop at his forehead and touched, with the tip of a finger, the spot between his eyebrows. Pietro’s body twitched, he sprang upwards with his head craned backwards and hands by his sides. The finger pushed harder, something touched his soul and Pietro could see the world slide apart before his eyes.