The morning glittered. Below at the square a solitary man was sweeping the red-yellow leaves with a long-handled broom, its bristles going crip-crip-crip on the flagstones as they raised a small cloud of dust at his feet. In the houses round the square children and menfolk were awakening and ambling downstairs for the breakfast their women had been preparing for the last half-hour; soon they would be wiped and dressed and released in the streets like a fresh outbreak of plague into the sharp autumn air. Oh humanity, how you never tired of yourself!
The Black Death was sucking the marrow out of this city. The sweet, squalid stench of death crept in like spices through its narrow streets, its markets bustling with silk and relics and oriental curiosities, the thick baroque walls of its buildings ceaselessly splendid, ceaselessly crumbling. It is an ignominious end for a city that has for centuries held the obsession of many a heart gallant, pure, ambitious or merely grandiosely delusional: men who commanded the fates of their times. Glorious Vienna! Desire and disease of the heart! Last night when he had set fire to that decrepit hospital it was less with the immediate need to escape his past – oh, a past he would never escape, and had he not always known? – than with the intention to give you a final, glorious farewell in the blazes, noble Vienna!
But the ancient city had rejected his gift, had been too damp to go up like the greatest fireworks display in the history of mankind. The fire had entirely razed down the hospital building, snuffing out every one of its inmates, but had hardly spread beyond five or six houses on either side. Even the street itself lay utterly unannihilated. (It shamed him to compare this skirmish to Pompeii; to speak nothing of the overused clichés of Sodom and Gomorrah, though he had not been present at either occasion. But even London, that great, vulgar cesspit, had shined brighter against the night barely a decade ago.) Men and women had scurried out in their underclothes and created a great hue and cry while the hospital burnt; but he knows, knows only too soon they would get over this puny accident. No use shedding precious tears over those who were fated to burn at the pits sooner or later; no one ever survived the Black Death. Of greater regret was the loss of the doctors – so few of them to go around in these accursed times – and especially the mysterious foreign healer whose fame had begun to spread through the fetid disease chambers, they said he could wring a man back from the bony clutches of the Reaper himself. But it did not bode well to trust these travelling foreigners too implicitly, who knew what devil they had sold their souls to, perhaps it was good that he had not been sighted since the breakout of the fire. Better for him to have been one of the corpses in the interiors of the building, mangled into each other beyond recognition, than to have miraculously escaped. The people could lament for him freely then.
Legs solemnly crossed, he sat on one of the rooftops surrounding the square at the other end of the city. He was a fifteen-year-old boy in his shirtsleeves and breeches, with a mop of chestnut hair and a button nose. Behind him, in the backyard of the house, a maple tree gently dispersed flaming leaves with every touch of breeze. A hint of ice in this breeze, ice from the caves and fjords of the north, his homelands; this breeze had brought with it his father; this breeze, then, his parting knell from this city. Fare thee well, charming, ungrateful Vienna, so decayed, so resplendent in the grandeur of your fall! A few minutes more in communion with this monstrosity and then he would climb down from this rooftop, find his way to the marketplace and buy himself a loaf of bread and blue-veined cheese to break the night’s long fast.
Not yet, but soon, he would require a new name.