And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world. This situation continued [from May] until September. ~ Agnolo di Tura, Siena, 1348
I’ve been thinking a lot about Agnolo di Tura, called The Fat.
I don’t mean to be melodramatic. In fact, I very strongly doubt the world in the grip of the Coronavirus Pandemicwill be anything like the graveyard that was Europe in the wake of the Black Death. Most things will go forward. There may even be opinion pieces written later about how it was all overblown.
One hopes, anyway.
I began with the passage above because this sentence is like a prose earworm in my brain, some days: “And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands.” If you read all of Agnolo’s narrative, you’ll see this is how it begins:
The mortality in Siena began in May. It was a cruel and horrible thing. . . . It seemed that almost everyone became stupefied seeing the pain. It is impossible for the human tongue to recount the awful truth. Indeed, one who did not see such horribleness can be called blessed. The victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath the armpits and in the groin, and fall over while talking. Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through breath and sight. And so they died. None could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship…
You can read the entire piece here.
There are other readings as well, but the image of Agnolo, a fat man struggling in the heat to bury his children under a merciless sun, has never quite left me. The simplicity of his narrative has always struck me as sorrowful in a timeless way. The kind of devastation that has no point in history because whatever the year on the calendar, it would be the same for anyone in similar circumstances. The words of a man writing nearly 700 years ago, and it’s almost as if you can still hear him sigh.
I’m mostly just following the brush with this post, which is being written on the kind of day that has always given me the creeps, because it is so like bad dreams I had as a child.
It is windy and a little chilly outside. Clouds are rushing by, white and gray, and the sun isn’t really out but I can see blue sky as well. The evergreens that rise behind the houses across the street are restless in the wind, which doesn’t moan so much as it murmurs.
I had a lot of wind-filled nightmares when I was a child.
One that I never forgot came shortly after watching the 1964 film version of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, The Last Man On Earth, starring Vincent Price. In that nightmare, I woke to a murmuring and constant wind pushing its way through my childhood home, which was in ruins. One of my sisters was just a mummy in a creaking swing on the back porch. I found myself outside then, and I stepped over two mounds in the driveway that I realized were my parents’ graves.
The wind never stopped, and I know I thought that whatever happened to everyone had come with the wind.
The dream ended at my elementary school, with me standing outside my kindergarten classroom, which was in shambles. I heard the distinctive ringing bounce of a red gym ball on the cement behind me, as if someone had just dropped one, and I turned to see a ball bouncing away, but there was no one there who could have dropped it.
And so I come back to this wind outside today, and all the coronavirus news skittering across my Twitter feeds, on my big-screen TV, and the Agnolo di Tura in my mind, hunched and sweating over the dead.
No one wants to know that kind of sorrow. No one wants to know how alone the man must have felt.
So I guess even the worst-case scenario imaginings in my mind regarding coronavirus are enough to shake me a bit, to rattle my cage.
There are probably many lessons to learn from Agnolo di Tura. The one that will not leave my thoughts today is something that first occurred to me after my brother committed suicide 20 years ago. Then again after my sister died from septic shock in 2016.
Sometimes it is a curse to survive.