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Messina, Sicily ~ October 1347
“Leave, go far away! You and your sailors have brought death and destruction to our city! Board your ships and be gone!”
Genoa, Italy ~ January 1348
“Papa! Papa! They’re here!” a young boy shouted with excitement as three Genoese ships sailed into the Mediterranean harbor from Messina. His dark curls were whipped across his face as the wind picked up, sending a chill through his bones. But he didn’t care. He loved watching his father unload trading ships and come home with treasures upon treasures galore. His father regarded him with a sigh and ruffled his hair.
“What will it be this time, Papa?” the boy asked. A number of things popped into his head. Exotic spices, silks, jewels – the list went on and on.
“Patience, bambino,” said his father.
“Giuliano!” a male voice called to him. “Come quickly. They’re almost ready!”
Giuliano turned to enter the docks, leaving his son with a warm look. He followed the other men, taking in the path and direction of the strong winds.
Always makes for a good trade day in the seaport, he thought.
There was plenty of work to be found unloading goods in this kind of weather. He stepped foot on the deck of one of the galley ships, marveling at his good fortune. It was roughly 200 feet long and propelled by heavy oars that required about 1,200 sailors to row. In his mind, this meant lots of expensive cargo. He was in luck. His muscles bulged with the weight of the crates as he lifted them easily with his strong arms, cradling them in his grasp as he bustled about. This was a man’s work.
Beyond the dock, Nicholaus watched his father and fellow laborers work in awe, wishing he, too, was old enough to do something as productive and rewarding as they. The carts of goods being unloaded both fascinated and intrigued him, and he entertained himself with fantasies of what they held and the lands they came from. Who touched that silk last? Who procured those spices and jewels? It was a wonderment to his lively imagination.
Finally, Giuliano, tired and a few bags of coins richer, finished his work on the ships at last. He joined his son on the docks as they headed home with some of the workers that had assisted in unloading. Nicholaus joined their laughter and jokes, again wishing he was one of the men instead of an eight-year-old. He watched them amuse themselves, telling stories and picking fleas off their sleeves that had most likely come from the ships. One such story involved the spread of a mysterious disease carried by a poisonous cloud from the East. The men laughed at the absurd tale, agreeing that it was too far away to affect them, if it were even true. Soon the stories turned to happier tales and suggestions of what they should do with their newly earned wages.
It was a productive day.
The next morning, upon coming down to breakfast to greet his father, Nicholaus realized that he was nowhere to be found. His mother told him that he was ill and in bed and would not be coming to breakfast today. Sad and sulky, Nicholaus settled down to breakfast by himself. He loved his father and especially loved spending time with him. He was supposed to help him learn to fish today. Surely, he couldn’t be sick.
“I’m sorry, bambino,” his mother said. “He will be well to take you fishing soon.”
“Jacobella . . .” came a low, raspy voice, sounding as though it took much effort to utter those four syllables.
“He needs me,” she said. She kissed her son on the forehead and left to attend to her husband.
But, contrary to Jacobella’s high hopes, Giuliano’s condition did not improve. She received word from the wives of the men who had helped unload ships yesterday that some were found dead in their beds this morning. Gossip claimed that the three ships that had arrived in the seaport had within two days affected every inch of the city. The sailors and citizens alike were falling ill, some dying immediately. She thanked the Lord that Giuliano only had a slight fever. But, he just kept getting worse: fever, chills, swelling of the glands. She wanted to help, but there was nothing she could do. His condition grew more and more severe with the progression of days. Time seemed to stop for everyone in the house.
By the third day, cries from the becchini could be heard from the streets, coming to carry away the dead. She averted her eyes when going out to the market and tried to avoid the stench of the carts of bodies. But, the next day, Giuliano was no better. Jacobella hugged Nicholaus close to her bosom as he cried and cried endlessly. Rumors were all over the city about an unseen, but deadly illness from the ships. The family feared they would all soon meet the same fate as their beloved husband and father.
There was no escape.