The Breathable Air: Part 3
They were the same four that Leonardo had seen earlier that morning, only now instead of carrying on their shoulders a door, they had appropriated a little wooden trundle cart which they wheeled before them, stacked with grisly cargo. When he opened the door to their knocking, the becchini pushed past him without speaking and crossed the garden to the enter the house proper. From where he stood, Leonardo could see Vincente’s maid within the darkness of the house motioning the men toward the stairs.
Leonardo blinked and swallowed. It caused him a little pain, and he became aware of his shoulders shaking slightly. He was very hot and the bubo at his groin seemed to sizzle in his flesh, burning him with every movement, every insuck of breath. He glanced out into the street at the corpse-carriers’ wheelbarrow. There were three bodies in it: a man of middle-age, a woman most likely his wife, and a boy-child of about five years. Tumors swelled blackly on their faces, necks, and arms. Their skin was stretched and crazed and split. Flies explored the air about them and Leonardo looked closer to see the child’s left missing and the ragged, bloody marks of claw and tooth about his person.
The four becchini came back out of the house. Two walked unencumbered, but behind them Leonardo saw the second pair dragging his friend’s body by the arms. Vincente had once been a large man, big-boned and fleshy. Now he was all sharp angles and bone jutting out against his soiled nightclothes. His flesh bore the same ruptures and buboes as the family in the cart, and Leonardo stared at him and began to tremble. He covered his mouth with his hand and looked away as the two becchini heaved Vincente Coruscuito up and into the deadcart where he lay staring heavenward with a fixed expression of something like mirth. As though Death had paused to relate some colorful tale which Vincente found amusing.
The leader of the four noticed him then and realized that Leonardo was not another servant. The man was small and thin and dirty and the whites of his eyes had a yellow cast to them. The becchini was unshaven and when he smiled Leonardo saw dark blossomings of rot working at his teeth.
“Young gentleman,” said the becchini. “Young gentleman, do you know this work we do?”
The air seemed very bright, and Leonardo had to squint to make the other out, and saw him as a swath of dark, like a shadow untouched by sunlight. He swallowed and grimaced over the pain at the back of his throat, and told him that he did.
“Then you would know how thirsty a work it is, then. Wouldn’t you?” He fixed him with a questioning stare until Leonardo mumbled that he did.
“Have you then, young sir, coin to give poor working folk?” The becchini tilted his head to the side and put his palm up between them. Behind the man, his fellows muttered amongst themselves and shuffled their boots in the hot dust. Leonardo saw they all wore daggers at their belts and one took his out to whittle idly at the cart handle.
He drew four coins from a pouch at his breast and dropped them in the becchini’s hand. The little man’s eyes widened, and then he grinned and took a step back to look Leonardo up and down. Pocketing the coins, he placed a finger to the side of one eye and said, “You’re a student.”
“And you are waiting in a dead man’s garden when nearly all students have fled Padua. It must be that you are in love.”
Leonardo blinked to get the other in focus. “How can you know that?”
The becchini touched his own caved chest with the tips of his splayed fingers. “I once attended a university. I was once in love. Did you think that one such as myself could not? Did you think me perhaps born to this filthy trade?” He waved a hand at Leonardo. “No matter. It is no matter at all for now I am indeed only that which you see before you.”
“What happened? Why do you do this?” Leonardo nodded to the deadcart, the bodies ripening in the sun with Vincente now among them. He could see the signs of bloat in the child’s face and neck—a dark swelling there as though he held his breath.
The man sucked a tooth and shook his head. “Because it is a necessary thing to do, young sir. You ask me what and you ask me why and in so doing you ask me for a story, my story, and I am not inclined to tell it. The moments of my life leading to this moment are mine alone and I’ll not tell them, save that the one I loved was not strong. She did not survive the pestilence and I did. And I was still strong enough to carry her to her grave afterward, and bear the look upon her face as I shoveled dirt over it. I was strong enough to do that and I am strong enough to do this.” He gestured to the bodies behind him. “And in that I am happy.”
Leonardo shook his head. “I do not understand you, sir.”
The becchini grinned wide to reveal his awful teeth and said, “A man might search his life away for something meaningful—success perhaps. But joy is in doing the thing that’s needed at the moment, and doing it well and without fear and with something like love.”
They stood silent together for some moments. The bells began to sound again. Overhead, Leonardo saw a hawk stitching the sky in long loops. When he looked back down, the becchini and his men were moving off down the street. They had lit torches to keep the pestilence at bay with smoke, and the man with whom Leonardo had spoken turned and called, “Your lady love . . . where does she live?”
Leonardo out the quarter of the city where Katarina Novali lived with her father, and the becchini shook his head slowly from side to side. “No one remains. They’ve all left the city days ago and every house is empty.”
Leonardo stared. The becchini shrugged and turned to rejoin his fellows. Leonardo stood in the falling sun watching after them and listening to the sound of the cart groaning down the street, and the sudden, high call of the hawk, and the softening echo of the bells, until finally there was only the slow, low moan of the wind pushing through the alleys. He turned and shut the garden door, locked it with a brass key, then threw the key over the wall and walked away.
Leonardo wandered through the streets for hours in despair over his life, but at the same time joyous that his only love had most likely reached the safety of the countryside. The afternoon sun blended smoothly into twilight and torches were lit all about the city, though Leonardo encountered no other soul walking the streets. There were several times he had to lean against a wall to catch his breath. His lungs burned and his joints ached. Once, in an alley strewn with garbage and the bodies of dead livestock, he fell to his hands and knees to vomit dark blood. At the university, he had seen the sick sometimes die in the space of a day, and there was not a thing that could be done once the black blood came spewing from their stomachs.
In the purple of eventide, a cool wind bore down upon Padua, freshening the air and making the torch flames gambol. Leonardo hobbled from shadow to shadow and arrived, finally, at an empty stable. There were old soap marks on the door and the stalls had all been turned open. The gutted carcass of a swine lay in a thatch of blood-soaked straw and the smell of dung was sour. From the doorway, Leonardo could see a line of cypress trees that marked the edge of the campus, and he watched as they bent and clashed and creaked as the wind twisted through them. He watched out the door for a time, then turned and went inside. He kicked straw into a corner of a stall and lay down upon it.
His eyes were hot and burning in their fleshy orbits, and his heart knocked loud and trembled spastic in its cage of bone. He was very weak and when he vomited again it was all he could to simply turn his head. He closed his eyes. He could hear the smallest sounds: someone coughing wetly from the house next door, flies returning to their carrion nests for the night, his pores tightening, dry with thirst.
When he slivered his eyes open, Leonardo had no way to know how long the mastiff had been watching him. It was a black shape just without the stall door, and it was utterly silent but for breath. It raised its hackles but Leonardo could not see its eyes for darkness. With effort, he lifted his head and rolled onto his back. He tasted warm blood, metallic in his mouth, and old blood dried to a crust about his lips. The bubo at his groin split suddenly as he shifted and bathed his thighs with warmth. He was aware he felt little pain. The black hound watched him as he slid his little knife from his belt. Leonardo held it with the butt of the pommel resting on his stomach. He could see the blade in the dark. The dog began to growl: a low sound, ancient in its intent. Leonardo sniffed and swallowed hard. With his free hand, he beckoned the dog and it came forward quickly, silent again, its teeth moon-colored in the dark, its wet mouth open.
When he work, Lawrence looked at his watch and swore. The day was nearly gone and he stood from the couch. He began to cough but it was not so bad, and he quieted after a minute or two. He swallowed the thick phlegm grimly and went down the hall to check on Elsabeth. She was still asleep and he thanked God for small favors and went out onto the porch. The little dish of table scraps was empty and he scanned the wooded lot next door for signs of the dog, but there were none.
He was inside, filling a water dish to put outside for the dog, when the phone rang. Lawrence set the dish down and ran his damp hands down the thighs of his trousers as he crossed to the phone, but the machine picked it up before he could reach it. He stopped in the middle of the kitchen and stared at the floor.
“You’ve reached the Kelman residence.” Elsabeth’s voice from maybe five years ago. “We’re unable to come to the phone at the moment—” A squeal of feedback, the Lawrence heard himself laughing and remembered the day. Elsabeth said, “Oh, damn machine!” and then a hiss of static as the tape spun itself apart inside the machine.
The caller had already hung up, and Lawrence opened the lid and lifted free the destroyed cassette. He stood there, as the day darkened into evening, holding the tape in his palm, staring at it. He took it into the living room and sat down on the couch. When it was full dark, he left the tape on the coffee table and went into her room.
At first he tried to read to her from the book of poems he’d left on her table the night before. But he couldn’t concentrate on the words or their cadence, and so held her frail hand a while instead. He looked at the way the hand was just beginning to curl in on itself, the way a bird hides its head beneath a wing, and he looked at her face. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” he told her. “You tell me what to do.”
Elsabeth stared at the ceiling and Lawrence switched off the light. He could see her eyes in the dark, her parted lips, her teeth. Her hair a shadowy net upon the pillow that caught his words and held them near her head. Understood or not. After a while he stood.
With shaking hands he removed his clothes and lay them neatly across the chairback until he stood naked beside her bed. There was a moon out and its light played upon his pale body so he felt he glowed, that he had become the ghost of himself already. He fixed his mind around not coughing. Elsabeth’s breath was even, untroubled.
He got slowly into bed with her but did not know how to feel. He lay for a long time beside her, feeling her fierce warmth against his upper arm; then he moved his hand to touch her stomach, his palm flat to feel the breath entering and leaving and entering again. He fumbled with the buttons of her blouse and pressed his face into her hair. He found her mouth with his and his hands moved gently on her body. Pressing against her thigh he curled her fingers around himself and held them there with one hand as his hips rocked. He imagined her awake with her nimble, strong fingers cupped, then clenched, and imagined also those little islands and reefs of light, of shadow, of darkness. The two of them together there, and happy.
In the end he wept. Because it was no good and he could not finish; because it was the last time he would share a bed with his wife; because he had heard her voice that evening and not recognized it. He wept because he was not privy to her dreams or the life of her imagination, nor she to his, and he wept for the final passing of their life together, and because they were each so utterly alone now.
Sometime after midnight, Lawrence Kelman woke rose from the bed. The night was quiet—no rain nor traffic on the street. Moonlight spilt through the window and touched here and there about the room. He braced himself to cough, but it didn’t come, and he stood in the center of the room feeling a lightness of spirit he’d not felt in many months. Though Elsabeth lay sleeping in her bed the house seemed empty, and he moved from room to room touching things, like a haunt come back to a memory. He went into his own room and stood at the open window looking at the wooded lot next door.
The dog moved slowly through the trees like the ghost of a dog. Lawrence stood very still and held his breath. The animal crossed the yard and stood at the bottom porch step, staring at him before finally limping up the steps and bending its head over the water dish. It drank and turned three tight circles before settling down on the porch-boards to sleep under Lawrence’s watching eye. He stood there a long time, watching it rest. He thought it was the most beautiful thing he’d seen in a very long time.
She cannot see clearly for the dark. Nor is there much sound. Perhaps the ticking of the clock she and Lawrence had brought home from Italy, or the soft creak of the floorboards where they sagged in the hall. Perhaps her own breath across her teeth. There is a swath of moonlight slanting through the window to her left and another yellow rind of light to her right. In that yellow light something moves, and she dreams she turns her head to see him standing at his bedroom window naked, watching something and taking delight in it. He is silhouetted there and his skin is marbled in light, smooth. His shoulders are wide and strong.
Then come dreams rife with the possibilities of endings. Perhaps she dies that moment, happy, or merely falls asleep once more. Perhaps they are bricked-up together, man and wife, within a house in Padua and perhaps no pestilence comes upon them. Or, perhaps, she rises from the bed and goes to him where he stands and together they watch the day break.
There is a voice that tells her there are no endings nor were there ever. That endings by their definition imply a void, and so things must go on much the same as they ever were in Padua or elsewhere, for lovers and for maidens, for husbands and for wives. She decides it is her own voice. She can hear the smallest sounds. She can see very far.
So that’s “The Breathable Air.” In typing this up and getting it ready for the blog, it’s been hard not to go back in and mess around with it—make it “better,” so to speak. The writer Joyce Thompson once told me that every revision of a piece is another chance to get it right but, once it’s published, it’s out of your hands. So, having been lucky enough for this story to see the light of day, I’ve left it alone (even though, given the opportunity, I’d love another chance to get it right…)