"No, no, no," the doctor whispered as he leaned down and placed his ear to the child's lips.
Giovanna inhaled sharply. "Is he . . .?" She daren't finish the question. Her father's sudden pained expression as tears squeezed through his clenched eyelids told her everything. "You did everything you could, Papa. I'm sure of it," she said when he straightened up.
The doctor raked his fingers through his salt-and-pepper colored hair. "My best wasn't good enough. It is never good enough," he said in an unusually bitter tone before sinking into the chair again.
Agostino Rienzo was an exceptional physician, but even he couldn't save everyone from the plague. His deprecating statement wasn't just about this current loss, yet it was followed by a final display of hope as he took the boy's limp arm and placed two fingers at the base of the pallid palm. A dirty bandage covered the spot directly above, but it left just enough room to check for the tell-tale signs of life. When Agostino began to sob and buried his face in his hands, it became undoubtedly clear there no longer was one.
The Sisters of Nazareth were nothing, if not efficient. Although they'd stayed out of the doctor's way while he had focused on his esteemed patient, they immediately took action when the situation called for it. Not a minute had passed since the boy had expired before a cart man was standing in the doorway, ready to take his latest load to the graveyard. The bed would likely get a new occupant almost as quickly.
"Papa, please," Giovanna said, touching her father's arm to get his attention. She'd been saddened by this outcome, but at least it would make getting him home easier.
But he waved her off. "No. I will take him," he said before rising. Wrapping the departed boy—who now appeared to just be peacefully sleeping—in the blanket and then scooping the precious package up in his arms, he walked past the puzzled monatto before leading the way outside.
Giovanna didn't have the heart to object. It was a final act of love that her father never got to show for his own dead son. Enrico had passed in the night at this very hospital while his father was busy with other patients, and he had been interred before any family members could say a proper goodbye. That missed opportunity had haunted both of them ever since.
If at all possible, the silence on the way to the burial site was even more deafening than it had been upon her arrival. The wind had stopped blowing across the courtyard, the waves had ceased lapping along the shoreline, and even the footsteps had failed pounding on the pavers, as though life had left the entire world and not just the small child in the doctor's arms. Only Agostino's labored breathing as he struggled with the burden—not physically of course, as he had a sturdy constitution for a man in his mid-forties—echoed in the thickening mist that rolled off the lagoon.
The somber duo stopped at the edge of a freshly dug hole that was much too large for one boy.
"This will not do," said Agostino to the grave digger who was leaning on his spade at the perimeter. "You must prepare a single plot for this child at once."
The man shook his head. "There is no space nor time, Signore. There are just too many of them. I assure you it makes no difference either way."
To Giovanna's horror, her father's legs buckled and he fell forward. "How dare you? Insolence! Of course it makes a difference!" he exclaimed with decreasing vehemence as he kneeled on the ground and tears streamed down his face. Lowering his head onto the dead child's body, he continued to sob. "Would you not want your son laid to rest with the utmost respect? Would he not deserve eternal slumber in a place made just for him?"
"Of course, Signore, but—" the other man began to object, but Giovanna waved at him to stop.
"Papa," she said, gripping his shoulder in reassurance. "You need rest. Please, let him go."
Agostino sighed. Slowly raising his head, he nodded at his daughter. "Yes, rest," he said, as if returning to reality before turning his attention back to the lifeless form still in his grasp. "Forgive me for not being able to save you. May you find peace, sweet child—"
The blanket suddenly ballooned as when the lungs expand with a deep breath, and the doctor flinched before cutting short his farewell soliloquy.
"Did you see—?" he began to ask, but the chest area unmistakably rose and then fell once more. "Christ in Heaven!" he exclaimed, turning away from the grave and gently placing the bundle on the ground beside it. After hastily folding the fabric away to expose the face, he gasped.
Giovanna didn't like to scream, especially not twice in one morning. The act was a sign of fragility and lack of preparation, both of which could lead to unfortunate results under the wrong circumstances. But sometimes a girl couldn't choose her preferred reaction, and the sudden shock produced an inadvertent shriek only the clasping of her hand against her mouth could stifle.
Because unlike when he was being wrapped up, the boy's eyes were now wide open and staring straight ahead.
"Is . . . is he alive?" she managed to ask through clenched fingers and labored breaths.
Agostino's sobs of grief turned into unbridled joy as he placed his ear to the boy's nose. "Yes! Yes, there is evidence of breathing. Shallow, but unmistakeable," he added, moving upright again before wiping tears from his cheek. "The Procurator will need to hear at once of this miracle."
"It is a miracle, indeed!" exclaimed Soura Violetta from behind.
Giovanna didn't know how long the nun had been there, but she was thankful for her presence. The way her father wobbled—still kneeling graveside—was becoming more pronounced by the second. And while the boy's wondrous twist of fate delighted her, there would be ample time later to both ponder the details, as well as share them with the proper officials. She would only be truly pleased once she safely got the good doctor home.
But it was too late. Before Giovanna could step to her father to help him stand, Agostino Rienzo's shoulders slumped and the most famous plague doctor in Venice tumbled forward into the already dangerously full mass grave.
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The Plague Doctor's DaughterHistorical Fiction
In 1630 Venice as the Black Death's victims refuse to stay buried, a plague doctor's daughter and procurator's son team up against arranged marriages, religious zealots and Doge's palace intrigue to save their city. * * * The Borgias meets The Fo...