by David Wisehart
Giovanni’s plan came to him on the push to the summit of the mountain road, a wheel-rutted trail that meandered like a Dionysian through the hills and valleys of Campania. In exchange for company and conversation, he had agreed to take William and Nadja to the Cave of the Sibyl at Lake Avernus, near Cumae, now four days off at a laggard’s pace. Giovanni would then continue on to Naples alone.
He had traversed these mountains many times on business errands for his father. This stretch of God’s country never failed to inspire him. In those days he would share drinks and swap stories with passing travelers, but now he met no merchants on the road, no messengers on horseback, no penitent pilgrims bound for the Vatican. Pestilence had swept through these hills like the Devil’s rapture, summoning the damned.
His legs ached in memory of the long trek south. His feet were as sore as a flagellate’s back. His donkey, Apuleius, seemed weary of the cart, which was laden with nine travel bags and one benighted Knight Templar. The knight had briefly opened his eyes, but to no avail. The man remained a burden.
As the grade of the road steepened, Apuleius slowed to a limacine crawl. William and Nadja pushed the tumbrel from behind while Giovanni led the company up the hill, taut reins biting his hand. He sang a medley of Occitan ballads, his donkey’s favorite traveling songs, and Apuleius caught his second wind. The wheels turned at a steady pace, marking time like the gears of a tower clock.
A ballad by Guido Cavalcanti came to mind, and Giovanni gave it a melancholy voice:
As I cannot hope ever to return,When his singing lapsed into whistles and hums, he let his mind ramble.
Little ballad, to Tuscany,
Go lightly, softly,
Straight to my lady....
His new plan was simple: convince William to abandon Nadja’s hellbound folly and come with him instead to Naples, where Giovanni would introduce the famous friar to the court of Queen Joanna, and thereby reap her royal favors. In this way the poet might atone for his youthful indiscretions and reinstate himself in Neapolitan society, where his rhymes had once earned him a following in the court of the former monarch, King Robert the Wise. William of Ockham, famous for his logic, would surely see the logic in the poet’s proposal. The simplest plan was usually the best.
Giovanni’s original plan had been more vague: to seek out his friends in Naples, if any survived the pestilence, and beg them for an audience with the queen. He had known Queen Joanna in her youth, before her ascendency, and had spun some naughty fables for her amusement. Surely the queen would remember him fondly and welcome his plea for patronage.
He had in mind a new book that Her Highness would be unable to resist, a collection of bawdy tales and witty sketches intercalated with clever bits of rhyme. Already he had composed a dozen novellas like the ones that had made the ladies of the court blush and giggle, stories that would lift the spirits of the queen’s loyal subjects and mitigate the fears of this dismal age. If he could win Her Highness’s support for this admittedly trivial work, it might secure his livelihood and pave the way for his greatest ambition: an epic poem to rival Dante.
But first he needed to speak with William alone. He resolved to create an opportunity at their next encampment, and devoted the rest of his climb to thinking how it might be done.
They made camp in a holt of hazel near the verge of a canyon bluff, where the ground was cloaked in leaves and catkins. Giovanni tethered Apuleius to a tree and found clusters of hazelnuts on the branches. August was early for hazelnuts, but a few had begun to brown. He harvested a handful and peeled off the fuzzy husks to reveal smooth round shells, like Roman helmets, which he cracked open with a pair of flat stones. He brushed away the shells and passed the kernels to William and Nadja.
“Pearl of the poets,” he said, and popped the last one in his mouth. It tasted sweet and creamy.
Nadja scrutinized the morsels in her hand, then offered them to William. “You will need this medicine.” She traveled with a pouch of herbs, and claimed to know their uses.
The friar looked skeptical.
“To ease the pain of the scorpion’s bite,” she added.
“Scorpions?” Giovanni said. “Not around here.”
The girl agreed. “Not here.”
William studied her for several heartbeats, then ate without argument, chewing the nuts one at a time.
Giovanni had once read in a book of simples that hazel oil applied to the skin could heal a scorpion bite. He did not believe that eating the kernels would serve as a prophylactic, but Nadja spoke as one who knows, giving her words the weight of prophecy.
He said to her, “Dante does not mention scorpions in Hell.”
Nadja took a sketch from her pack and handed it to him. Giovanni studied the rough sheet of paper. It displayed a manticore: the face of a man, body of a lizard, paws of a lion, tail of a scorpion.
“Yes,” Giovanni muttered. Dante had described this creature in Canto XVII of the Inferno. “But I haven’t read you that part.”
“I saw this demon in a falling dream.”
Giovanni had his doubts. William believed in Nadja’s vatic delusions, but Giovanni had met too many charlatans to accept her claims on faith alone. Anyone with a minimum of skill and a modicum of practice could draw a beast and call it a prophecy.
Admittedly, Nadja’s drawings were good. If she had been born a man of Tuscany, she might have secured an apprenticeship and followed the path of Giotto; instead, born to the distaff side, she hoped to be a Hildegard. That famous sibyl of Bingen saw the Devil as a monstrous worm, black and bristly, covered with ulcers and pustules, with the face of a viper and blood-red eyes that burned from within. Of course, everyone saw devils these days. Nadja’s visions were unoriginal. The manticore she drew was not her own, but a demon out of Dante. Someone must have described the beast to her, someone who knew the poem well.
“You say you cannot read?” Giovanni asked.
“I can read my name,” she said, “and some of the Church words. Iesus. I-E-S-U-S. That means our Lord Jesus Christ.”
She cast a glance at the friar, who nodded his approval with a hint of tutorial pride.
Suspicious, Giovanni said, “Has someone read to you from the Inferno?”
“You did,” she answered.
She shook her head.
“When you were a child, perhaps. Your mother?”
“She could not even read Iesus. She went to Heaven this year, on Saint Alban’s Day. Now she reads the face of God.”
The pestilence, thought Giovanni. He, too, had suffered losses in the great mortality: his father, his stepmother, his Uncle Vanni. In Florence, four-fifths of the population had died in the past two years. Now his closest friends were gone: Matteo Frescobaldi, Giovanni Villani, Ventura Monachi, Bruno Casini, Francesco Albizzi, Capo di Borghese Domenichi.
And Lady Fiammetta, his little flame. He had met her in the shadows of King Robert’s court, and from that day the shadows held no fear for him. When darkness fell she came to him, and he to her. Until the shadows claimed her. Thinking of her now, he felt blood tremble in the lake of his heart. Everywhere and always, love made way for grief.
He set these memories aside and continued his line of questioning. “Your father, then? He read to you?”
Nadja shook her head. “I never knew him.”
“Stories from a wandering preacher, or friends around the campfire?”
“All my friends are here.”
William put a hand on Giovanni’s arm. “Enough. No need to torture the girl. What do you know of this demon?”
Giovanni answered, “His name is Geryon. Dante saw the beast in the abyss, where the river of blood cascades into the lower pit. Geryon guards the descent into Malebolge, the eighth circle of Hell, but Virgil tamed him.”
“He has a scorpion’s tail,” Nadja said.
“Yes. I should have remembered that.”
“A small matter,” William said.
“Which may prove deadly,” Nadja added.
The friar swallowed the last of his hazelnuts, then inquired of Giovanni, “How did Virgil tame the beast?”
“Dante doesn’t say.”
“What does he say?” Nadja asked.
Giovanni scratched the nape of his neck. “Well, let’s see.” He brought the scene to mind. “After meeting the sodomites in the seventh circle, Virgil talked to Geryon alone, while Dante spoke to the shades of the dead.”
“Who?” William asked.
Giovanni felt a twinge of shame. His father had been a usurer for the Bardi company, lending money at interest—merciless loans that ruined many good men. Giovanni had not told William his dark secret, that he came from a family of merchants and bankers, that he himself had apprenticed as a usurer. He saw no need to confess it now.
William continued. “So this demon, Geryon, guards the passage down to the Devil.”
“But the demon can be reasoned with.”
“You must have some idea,” William insisted.
But he didn’t. “You’ll know when you get there.”
“I hope so,” William said, and began unloading comestibles from the cart.
Giovanni helped with the travel bags, most of which were his. Three contained his clothes. One had books and writing supplies. Another held tools from his father’s estate—hammer, nails, rope, and the like. He needed to get a few things out: warm clothes; his ledger, pen, and ink; a trowel to dig a fire pit. Taking the tool bag, he accidentally knocked it against Marco’s elbow and heard a thump of metal on bone. The comatose man did not complain.
“Sorry,” Giovanni muttered, for no reason, then asked William, “What about him?”
The old man set down the culinary bag. Wood spoons drummed against an iron pot, then settled into silence. “Leave him be for now, until we get the campfire going.”
Nadja collected deadfall for the fire.
“We could make more drawing sticks,” Giovanni suggested. He hoped to occupy the girl’s attention with this task, then lure William aside for a private conversation.
The girl brightened. “Hazelwood is best for charcoal.”
“Also used by witches,” said the friar, casting a glance at Nadja. “For divining water, I believe.”
She shrugged. “There’s never a witch around when you need one.”
In the tool bag the trowel was snared by a skein of rope. Giovanni untangled it and began to dig a fire pit. “Mercury’s caduceus was made from hazelwood. He used it to guide souls into the underworld.”
“Then we should take some with us,” said William.
Nadja piled her gleanings on the ground. Giovanni broke the sticks into flinders, arranged them in a pyre, then added dry leaves and catkins before striking flint to steel. A hot spark kindled the leaves. The air roiled with smoke. Giovanni blew into the flamelet until the larger sticks ignited. The drought had been a curse to the foliage, but a blessing to the fire.
The three of them took Marco down from the cart. The knight was heavy, owing to his height. As they manhandled Marco to the fireside, Giovanni stubbed his toe on a root. He caught himself before they all fell into the flames, and they managed to set the knight down with no additional injuries to the patient or the caregivers.
At Nadja’s prompting, Giovanni dug a kiln for making charcoal. He had learned the collier’s art as a young boy, and he enjoyed putting his knowledge to use. Explaining the process to Nadja, he piled nine hazel sticks on a bed of kindling in the pit before covering the wood with topsoil. He left a small hole in the center for smoke to escape, and through this opening he lit the kiln with a firebrand. Lacking sufficient air for a flame, the sticks would burn slow, smolder overnight, and be reduced to charcoal by noon tomorrow.
Giovanni asked Nadja to monitor the smoke, then excused himself from the camp. If he guessed right, the friar would seek him out within the hour.
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