In 1347 the Black Plague had reached it’s peak. Across Europe thousands perished as this vile disease, festered in pestilence, showered the landscape with death. No one rich or poor, nor learned or simple, nor strong or weak were spare from it’s putrid touch. In the inner cities, so many had been wiped out that there wasn’t enough room to bury them all. Mass graves had become common as well as the unfortunate souls who had to collect the corpses. One such a man was Phillipe Deitre and this is his story…
A man of sorrow he was. Calloused and bitter. For there once was a time in his life when he had known better days, but not now. The ravenous plague had stolen from him his one true love and had left him in a state of continuous indifference. Originally a farm hand by trade, he now found himself carting off the numerous bodies left in the plagues’ wake. Ironically, it was a job he volunteered for. Each day was the same to him, as he did not care if he continued living or joined the dead. To each neighboring village he would walk with his death stained cart behind him.
Stopping on the outskirts, his emotionless voice would call to the few living souls who remained there. “Bring out your dead!” Hesitantly they would follow suit. With feelings of dread the villagers would bring their lost loved ones to the cart. Never making eye contact with the villagers, Phillipe could not help but rest his eyes upon the dead. Their black and bloated bodies, though reeking of death, seemed to call out to him. For in the eyes of the dead could still feel and sometimes hear his long lost love.
Such instances grieved him and to ignore them he would grip the handles of his cart tightly, to no avail. When his cart was filled with bodies he would walk past the outskirts where a freshly dug mass grave would be awaiting him. One there he would unload the dead and then find himself blankly staring at them and would do so for hours until he finally buried them.
So distraught he was with life that each evening he found himself n a dingy pub and drown his sorrows with drink. Rarely would that have it’s desired effect no matter how much of the amount he consumed. And even though he was inebriated the same questions still persisted in his mind. “Why do I still live? Why was she taken? To spare someone from love and not death is shameful indeed.” With his glass empty and his mind cloudy he would leave.
Walking the dank and dark streets he would always notice large groups of rats protruding from holes in the walls and sewers. How he loathed them. On his way home he always passed by a large church and his reaction to seeing it was always the same. Losing his love had lacerated his faith, and although he would never publicly state his feelings, the only thing he believed in now was the harsh realities he had to see everyday. The realities of pain, suffering, and death. Pausing briefly to gaze at the church, an act he did every night, he noticed something rather strange. To his right he could see, to his amazement, a solitary rat sitting back on it’s hind legs and staring right at him. Such a sight he had never seen prior to this night, it filled him with awe. Slowly, he tried to approach the lone rat who then sped away as soon as it was within grabbing distance. Phillipe stood there confused for a moment and when his senses returned to him, he dismissed the event entirely. The next day he would resume his unwanted labors. Walking from village to village, the innumerable dead and the cart that carried them were his only companions. On more than one occasion he would have the body of a young child on his cart. Seeing this would inconspicuously wrench from him the closest thing that resembled an emotional response, but still he would carry on to the burial pit. Once all the bodies were beneath the earth Phillipe, with his cart behind him, started making his way back into town. Not ten steps had he walked when he noticed something that made his spine crawl. The lone rat, the same one from the night before, was again sitting on it’s haunches and staring right at him. Dumbstruck Phillipe just stood and gazed at the sight of it. Looking into it’s red eyes, he could tell the little vermin was sneering at him as if he wanted to show him something. Not understanding the gesture, Phillipe again tried to approach the rat who promptly scurried away. Finding himself extremely confused, he did not know what to make of the situation. This was the second time he had seen the rat. Would there be a third time? He did not know.
That night Phillipe was home alone. Sitting on the edge of his bed he clutched in his hands the only object worthy of his adulations, the ring of his lost beloved. Staring at the ring brought forth memories of intimacy for she was beautiful. He could remember with vivid precision her scent, her touch, and her caresses. Such memories only served to torment him. Many times he would weep but then would force himself to cease knowing all too well that such an action did not serve him in the slightest way, nor would it bring her back. Sullen, he would retire himself to sleep.
The next day was more of the same. Walking village to village the countless bodies, boiled and black, turned his jaded stomach. No matter the sights he had seen, no matter how terrible, he could never truly condition himself to the sight or stench of death. Each day was a hell in and of itself. Why he would continue such an act was beyond even his abilities to reason. In truth, the only way that he found solace, although temporary, was at the same dingy pub.
On that particular night he had much to drink. Staggering, he left the pub and headed down the familiar and often treaded path towards his home. Again, as with every night, did he find himself in front of the church and gazing blankly at it. On most nights would he turn away and walk home but, on this night his emotional state, no doubt fueled by the amount of liquor he had consumed, compelled him to enter it.
Once inside the church he solemnly walked down the aisles until he was in front of the symbol that embodied all of it’s supposed holiness, the cross. Several moments did he just stand there and stare at the object, the object that brought to him nothing more than confusion. The longer he stared at the cross the more melancholy he became. It did not have the answers he sought nor did it give him any form of comfort from the things he had seen and experienced. Alone and infuriated he shifted his eyes to the floor. Grinding his teeth and clenching his fists he could focus his mind on nothing more than his rage and in his minds eye the only thing that remained as the image and memory of his lost love. With eyes of madness he again looked at the cross. His fury soon turned to sorrow as he realized no action he was capable of could indeed turn the sands of time and return her to him. With a deep sigh he began to turn from the holy object when he heard a faint noise. A noise he could recognize even in his intoxicated state.
It was the squeaking and muffled scratching of a rodent. Turning his attention to the direction of the noise he found, to his surprise, a set of bright red eyes meeting his own. It was the rat. The same rat he had seen on two separate occasions. Knowing now that the rat was indeed following him he spoke to it. “What do you want of me, vermin? Is it not enough that you twice disturbed me with your foul presence? Are you some sort of messenger sent from either Heaven or Hell to badger my already tattered existence? What do you want of me?!” Having the same smirk on it’s face, the rat hoisted it’s hind legs into the air and quickly scurried but did not go as far as to not be seen by him. Obviously this was a gesture from the rat that it wished to be followed.
Realizing that following the rat might be the only way to rid himself of it’s presence, he proceeded. Leaving the church, Phillipe followed the rat through the dark streets never letting the rodent leave his sight . While following the rat, he questioned the very fabric of his sanity. What was the relevance of all of this or even life itself? The rats direction headed for the catacombs, the sewers beneath the city. Not at all wanting to enter such putrescence Phillipe paused. The rat then stopped and turned around, as if to demand that Phillipe ignore his inclinations to resist. Hesitantly, Phillipe entered the catacombs.
The rat then continued it’s staggering pace. Going deeper into the catacombs, darkness eclipsed. Only the light of the moon seeping in from cracks above him gave him barely the ability to see where he was going. It also showed him countless cobwebs and puddles of dank water dripping down from above. The stench and foulness was overwhelming but still he continued, as the rat would not relent. Further into the catacombs, he noticed a flickering light in the distance. Getting closer to the light he could tell it was that of a candle. A solitary candle stood atop a stone altar. An altar from ancient times. Many years ago the pagans who occupied the whole of Europe were driven into practicing their heathen ways underground out of fear of Christian persecution. Phillipe understood the history of it all but what he did not understand was who could have been worshipping at the altar now, so many years later. It was less then relevant to him. Walking past the altar, he could see a human skull upon it adorned with bright jewels. He could also see that splattered upon the altar was dark blood. An indication that the blood before him was fresh. So much of it there was that it dripped down the altar and onto the floor. Although he wanted to stop and stare at the blood-drenched altar, he didn’t want to lose sight of the rat who was still scurrying quickly. Turning a corner, all light from Phillipe’s eyes vanished but he could still hear the rat scurrying and scattering. And from those sounds did his footsteps follow.
Fear gripped him, for in the darkened abyss of the catacombs he felt himself vulnerable. Using his hands as his guide and as trying to keep his mind still so he could detect the direction of the vermin’s footsteps, Phillipe slowly moved himself forward. The footsteps grew faint and then disappeared. For the life of him, Phillipe could no longer hear it. Pausing and straining in the darkness to hear any resemblance to the rat, he was startled to see an image so radiant that it seared the darkness. It was an image of a woman. Peering his gaze upon the image, he could see that the woman was fair and as he looked a little closer he then realized that the woman, dressed in a black shroud, was none other than his long-lost beloved. His heart raced and excitement overtook him.
Ignoring his fear, which would have left him petrified under normal conditions, he lunged forward eager to touch and shower the image with affections. No sooner had he moved an inch the image of the woman was gone. Confused and bewildered, he again stood alone in the darkness. Without hearing or seeing the rat he had no idea of which direction to go. Sensing the futility of his current predicament he decided to abandon it altogether. Trying to feel his way back from which he came, going backward gave him no sense of familiarity he was now lost.
Swallowed by the darkness panic began to overtake him.
Would this, this darkened emblem of filth, these sewers beneath civilization be his final resting place?
And then he began to think. Since the plague had taken his wife away from him he no longer cared for his own life. Why then should it matter to him, the place of his demise? After all, as soon as he was taken by death himself he would finally be reunited with her. What more could he possibly want?
Sliding down to the floor, he sat. Awaiting and embracing his supposed end, little did he know that fate had other plans for him.
It was then, when Phillipe had given up on life entirely, that the silhouette of a figure appeared through the darkness. From what he could see the figure was no man. Large it was and tall. And as he looked closer, Phillipe could see that the figure was shrouded and behind the shrouds was the shape of a very large pair of wings.
Seeing such a figure provoked fear. What could such a creature be?
Under his breath, Phillipe was hoping that such a creature did not notice him. Crouching against the walls of the catacombs, Phillipe held himself perfectly still. Even his breathing was as close to silent as could be. Not taking his eyes off the creature’s silhouette, Phillipe could now see the creature raising it’s arm toward the sky.
The creature then let out a piercing cry. The shriek startled Phillipe, who thought the sound resembled a large bird of prey. Another shriek from the creature brought forth illumination as torches from all corners of the catacombs were suddenly lit.
Phillipe jumped to his feet and with the look of terror in his eyes, ran the opposite direction of the creature, who obviously now had the ability to see him. Not getting far he was startled by the creatures voice. A voice that was husky and murky. “Run if you shall, mortal. There is no escape, For I know thee!” Turning around , Phillipe was now face to face with the monster!
With every fiber of his being Phillipe was afraid to even open his eyes. And when he did an unsettling feeling would make his stomach turn. With the hood of the shroud now down, Phillipe could see that the creature had the face of a man. Pale and bald, It’s eyes and lips were black. And in it’s right hand it clutched a large scythe. It did not take Phillipe long to realize who he was now confronted with. None other than the angel of Death!
With a smile the angel stood, and Phillipe could barely muster the strength to breathe much less speak. With much effort, he finally forced words from his mouth. “Am I dead? Is that why you have come here?” With a sound like a faint whisper the angel spoke. “If I am not mistaken, you have come here. Therefore you must still live. But not for too much longer, as none who see the face of death live to talk about it.” Phillipe then responded. “Then what brings you here if not to collect my soul?” Mockingly the angel answered him. “I need no reason to travel nor to perch. For I, and the shadow that accompanies me, have dominion over all of the earth!”
Phillipe was again in his usual state of confusion. “I do not understand” The angel quickly responded. “you apathetic mortals never do. In your daily tediousness do you forget that I am the master of all life. I am the one who gives meaning to life and it is I, and I alone, whom you fear. All of you!” The words of the angel sparked outrage in Phillipe’s mind. “Rest assured, I have no reason to fear you. Life in itself carries no joy for me. You may do your worst.” Giving another loud shriek the angel then answered him. “It is best not to speak of things which you have no knowledge of, mortal. For many a soul braver than you accounted for nothing when encountered with my cold empty touch.” Not at all withholding his tongue, Phillipe again spoke. “What pleasure derives from it? To turn all life into rotting clumps of meat and decay. To fill the world with loss and sorrow. What is the benefit for you in such an endeavor?” The angel then answered him. “I do not feel the urgency to justify such a response from such a low species. But, I will tell you this. I never enjoy taking life away from those who do not enjoy it. Where is the bliss in putting an end to suffering and misery? My passion demands the most wholesome of souls. It is they who pass first!” The angel then gave Phillipe a look of both disgust and intrigue. “And what is it that fuels thy boldness, mortal? Is it perhaps I knew someone that you once did? Someone who was in some way dear to you?”
Phillipe’s reaction was in conjunction with any normal person. “Fiend! How could you even mention it? You who have no warmth nor cheer except for what you dispose of, like chafe in the wind!”
The angel smiled and then spoke. “Ah! The truth reveals itself. Your tone would indicate a life void of feeling. Should that have happened on my account then how marvelous! I know of who you speak. Very few souls touched by my hand are hardly worth remembering, yet she was radiant was she not?” Hearing this made Phillipe grit his teeth with ferocity.
Each word spoken by the angel of death were like a razor slicing his flesh to the bone. “I had bear witness to the two of you before her affliction. Your happiness was envious indeed . You can imagine the pleasure I felt when my cold hands caressed every inch of her. How warm she made them, at least for a little while.” Hearing the words of the angel Phillipe envisioned images of his lost love and still the angel spoke. “Your time is almost at hand, mortal. And for your boldness I can assure you a most gruesome death!” Donning an evil grin, the angel pointed to cracks in the walls. “Here they come. The vehicle from which the plague infests. And now they come for you, Phillipe!” From the cracks in the walls hundreds of rats began pouring through. Rabidly swarming Phillipe, first to his feet and legs and then crawling up to his torso and head. He tried his best to fight them off. It was of no use. There were far too many of them. With dozens of rats on his body, he ran in circles as all the rats gnawed upon his hapless flesh. When his strength gave out he fell to the ground and was devoured. As his life left his body, he felt himself floating through space. Transcending dimensions.
First through Purgatory and then through Limbo and as he drifted towards the Celestial kingdom a great relief came over him as he truly hoped he would finally see his beautiful lost love at last. Reaching the barriers of the kingdom he could sense her and then, moving closer, he could see her. The excitement in his heart was great. Finally, the grief that had composed so much of his life was now going to end. Getting closer to the barrier of Heaven, he stretched out his hand hoping she would do the same. Confusion engulfed him when she replied to his action with nothing more then a blank stare. Again, he reached out to her and again she ignored him. And as e finally touched the barrier of Heaven, a single tear fell from the eyes of his love. He then felt himself falling. Falling faster than his mind could imagine. Through the dimension of Limbo he fell until he again reached Purgatory.
It was there, in that damned and desolate wasteland, where he would spend eternity. The same grief and despair he felt in life were his only companions now in death.
Back on Earth, Phillipe’s corpse, though smitten by the rats, was soon discovered. And as irony would have it, he himself was carried in a death stained cart and buried, with countless other corpses, in a nameless grave.
How terrible is life when it gives no joy to the living!