Today I was obliged to do something that I did not want to do, and in truth, I dreaded the moment. I was called to a small villa outside of a small fishing village north of Port St. Mary. A small child had died, and I was sent for to confirm the cause . . .the black death. Even the sound of the word causes me to shiver, for I have seen the aftermath of this harvest of souls, and it sickens the mind. I rode my horse along the edge of the cliffs overlooking the sea until I came to a small, white-washed cottage with a thatched roof set in amongst the dense bracken that lined the edge of the path. It was a cold day, the sky was overcast with dark clouds and a slight drizzle fell, but no wisp of smoke came from the chimney of the cottage.
I was taken to a small room at the back of the cottage where the poor girl lay. It was dark but for a few streaks of light from outside. The parents of the child did not speak. Instead, they only pointed to the bed where the child lay beneath a white sheet. I gently asked them to leave me alone with the child, and after they were gone, I slowly pulled down the sheet, exposing the dead child's face.
My reaction was of horror, not because I had never seen a body up close before, but because of the emaciated condition of such a young face. The pallor had already begun to darken, even as the skin began to tighten around the mouth. I had to be certain however, so I pulled the sheet down further until her carefully folded hands were visible. They were so small, so delicate, but I had to remain strong until my mind was convinced. My eyes focused on her fingers. They were swollen. I breathed a sigh of relief, but even then I knew what I must do. At last, I pulled the sheet all the way down to reveal her feet. If she had died of the Black Death, I knew that her toes would be black . . .her toes would tell the secret. I said a quick prayer, and then I looked. They were clean, as if they had only just been washed, but they were not black. By the grace of God, this girl had not been a victim of the plague.
I hesitated for a moment before leaving the room because I did not know what to say to the girl's parents. Yes, the child could now be given a proper Christian burial, but that would offer only partial comfort, for the girl was still dead.
Finally I left the room and went into the main room to tell the parents that they could bury their child properly. But when I saw them, something happened within me that I could not control. The grief that I witnessed on the face of the woman struck me like lightening, and my eyes flooded with tears, anguished tears. I looked her in the eyes for a moment, but then I had to look away. I had no words for her, no comfort to give. I had nothing to offer.
"She died a natural death," I told her through clenched teeth. "She shall have a Christian burial." Then I left the cottage and took no more notice of them than they had been ghosts, for I needed to be alone.
I write these words down now into a personal diary of a servant that I may never see again, a servant who served me well. I now put into writing what I could never put into words, for my shame is great. I am ashamed, for the tears I shed this day were not for the beautiful girl that lay dead before me. No, the tears I shed were for myself, and for my beautiful wife, and to my great dishonor, I allowed the parents of that poor girl to suppose that they were for her . . .and may God forgive me, for I have stolen their grief for myself. I pray that in my own selfish expression of pain that they may have taken at least some comfort, for they did not know what was in my heart, and the truth is but a memory.
Sigmus relates yet another emotional nightmare. One wonders at his capacity to endure so many tests.
I chose the music for this leaf from a piece my brother had written some time ago. This piece is very different for him as he is mainly a guitarist, and this particular fragment contains no guitar. It is an atmospheric study with intermittent shades of hope, indicated by reluctant major chords. He could not have known how fitting this music would be to the leaves which were just beyond his reach. As he passed this book to me, he must have known that the lives he had been studying so soberly would not terminate with his retirement. I wonder, did he know the sorrow that was to come, the pain held so tenderly in these brittle pages? And perhaps his capacity to endure was not as great as that of Sigmus. And what of mine?