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art by Melissa Mead

The Ritual of Names in Prague in the Last Days of the New Empire

Bernie Mojzes is the author of The Evil Gazebo, a short, illustrated book that is being rebirthed as a stage production later this year. He is also responsible for a passle of short stories that have or will appear in various anthologies and magazines, including Daily Science Fiction, Dead Souls, Crossed Genres, and the Bad-Ass Faeries Series, and is 50% of the editorial team at The Journal of Unlikely Entomology. Although he has on occasion been accused of committing Public Acts of Music and Philosophy, no charges were ever filed. To register a complaint, please visit www.kappamaki.com.

The bells of Strahov Monastery hadn't rung, I'm told, for over eighty years. Termites got into the thick wood beams some twenty-odd years before the building was boarded up and abandoned. Or maybe it was carpenter ants. Or maybe it was just dry rot. The details don't matter. What matters is that steel I-beams were set into the millennia-old wood and stonework and the ancient bells welded to them to prevent catastrophe.
I've seen them. There's no way they can ring.
But listen.
Strahov Monastery sits in the center of the district that bears its name. To the south and east is the park, now cleared and tilled in haphazard plots, and the ruins of the once-proud stadium. Once upon a time Strahov Stadium boasted the claim of second largest stadium in the world. Now it serves as both the local dump and as an informal market. North and west had been home to thriving businesses, homes and apartments. Not so thriving now, of course, but we make do. The monastery is the only building that hasn't been broken into and converted to other uses, that hasn't been covered in graffiti, hasn't been littered with refuse. Some residual reverence, I had thought, for the dying faith to which I've pledged my life.
Strahov district had been written off during the Collapse, cut off, evacuated at gunpoint, fenced in and forgotten. And then gradually repopulated by the poorest of the poor and the baddest of the bad, those for whom the razor wire was as much a protection from a predatory world as it was a barrier. Laundry hangs out to dry on lines strung between crumbling buildings. Solar panels decorate some of the rooftops. Not enough to matter. The greasy smell of cooking fires permeates the drywall; the apartment buildings bear an uncanny resemblance to giant smokehouses. Children play football in the street, dribbling coarsely stitched leather sacks, guarding goals constructed of street signs, while the older kids congregate on corners and practice the preening rituals of the adolescent mating dance.
The clinic that my ministry has brought me to is at the edge of the district, the last building before the fence and, through the grace of a few well-lined pockets, the only building still on the power grid. I have no medical training; my mission is to assist where I can, to spread the word, to ease the fears of the reluctant, to bring in those who are too ill to walk the handful of tortured blocks themselves. I walk among these people, speak in my halting Czech to those who will listen, assure them that we have no connection to the government, or to any of those who were complicit. The specter of eugenics hangs over us all, and I cannot begrudge them so well-founded a paranoia.
Prague is, after all, not so very different from the rest of Europe under the New Empire.
I saw her at dusk, always only at dusk.
She stood at the doors of Strahov Monastery, seeking entrance. Five children gathered around her skirts. The sixth, a baby, she held in her arms. There was, of course, no entrance to be had; thick plywood had been nailed over the doorway. A sign warning trespassers that the building was property of the Church was still legible, only partially covered by the peeling stickers declaring the structure and its contents property of the Empire.
Hardship, not age, had worn lines into the woman's face. She was hardly a quarter century old, though at first sight she seemed much older. I gathered my robes up to cross the rubble-strewn street. She turned to me as I approached, tearstained eyes seeking mine.
I'd sought to help, but some losses defy relief: the baby was very clearly dead.
Its skin was pale, with an undertone of grey. Its eyes were dark hollows, and blackened fingers peeked from a fold in the swaddling. The telltale black lump was visible on its neck.
A swollen and infected lymph gland.
A bubo.
The mark of God's wrath, in some mythologies. The mark of Plague.
The breath caught in my throat. We'd seen a few cases earlier that week, one child and two adults, just beginning to show symptoms, and we'd heard through the grapevine that cases of Bubonic Plague were being reported in other cities throughout Europe. We'd put the patients on wide-spectrum antibiotics and expected them to make full recoveries. This was the first Plague death I'd seen.
The woman said something, but I wasn't able to make sense of it. She spoke what sounded to me like Czech, but with such a strong dialect that it defeated my limited language skills. She pleaded with me. I think I caught a few words: help, and please, and sacrament. At first I thought she wanted help with the baby, but she wouldn't let me near it. Instead, she pointed at the monastery towers, standing silent against the darkening sky.
I was at a loss. I'd thought that she was mad, perhaps, with grief, holding her dead baby, her remaining children gathered around her, tearful but silent, and speaking to probably the only man for miles around who couldn't understand a damned thing she said.
"Listen," I said, "you need to come with me. We can help you. We need to check you out and check your children. Maybe they are also sick. But if they are, we can save them. They don't also have to die."
Maybe she understood the last word, because she burst into tears once again, and fell to her knees in front of me. She looked up at me again, then kissed the hem of my robe. I felt unclean, as if by letting her kneel before me I'd assumed a role to which I had no right.
"Please," I said, "please, don't do that." I took her by the shoulders and brought her to her feet. She was very nearly weightless, insubstantial, as if my hands could have passed right through her.
She grabbed onto my arm and pressed something into my hand. It was round, cold. A coin. Not the polycarbon RadIdent disks of New Empire currency, but a real metal coin. I stared at it. It was copper. Old and worn to near-featurelessness--God only knew whose face had once graced its surface--but copper nonetheless. Perhaps she had no idea what kind of treasure she held. Or perhaps she did. She refused to take it back, instead pointing at the bell towers.
"Look," I conceded, "I'll hold on to this for now, if you'll come with me to the clinic." I was sure it wasn't what she was asking for, but it seemed best to humor her. "Ok? I take the coin, and you come with me to the clinic?"
She nodded, eyes wide, and pressed my fingers closed over the coin. Her jaw twitched.
I put the coin in my pocket.
The bells rang. Once. Twice. Three times, shattering the evening calm and echoing off the stadium walls. And then they fell silent.
There was no movement in the towers, no lights in the monastery at all. I let go the breath I'd been holding, and turned again toward the woman and her children, but they were gone, slipped away in the gathering dark.
The next week was heart-wrenching, though it seems almost trivial in retrospect. Two more patients with plague came in to the clinic, sore and coughing. Only one of the initial three responded to treatment. The oldest of the patients worsened and then died of a sudden stroke during a coughing fit. The child had grown so weak as the disease progressed that we held little hope for her survival. We gave her morphine against the pain, and to suppress her wracking coughs.
I prayed. I prayed for them, and for us all. I can only hope that He didn't hear. Or that He doesn't know English. The alternative is beyond anything I can bear.
There were other cases of plague in Strahov District, people who hadn't come to the clinic. I heard a few fearful rumors in the market and on the streets. But life went on.
It was at the end of that week that I saw her again, again at the doors of Strahov Monastery, almost invisible in the grey light. She held a child in her arms. Four others clung to her skirts. I knew immediately that the child was dead.
"I'm so sorry," I said. "Please let me help."
Her remaining children looked up at me, unspeaking. One of them coughed into an already necrotic hand. Another had begun to cough. I touched his head; he was burning up. They needed treatment soon, and any of them who were not yet infected needed to be separated from the others.
"It's not too late," I lied. "We have antibiotics. We have food and clean beds. You'll be safe with us."
I still couldn't understand her response, though some of the words, again, were vaguely familiar. She tried to hand me another coin.
"No," I said. "We have to go to the clinic now." I took the hands of the two sick children and turned to walk toward the clinic, pulling them in tow.
"No!" I understood that word, screamed as she dropped her dead daughter on the cracked cement and snatched her children away from me. Wary and defiant, she pushed them behind her, and then once again offered me the coin and pointed at the bell towers.
I think a part of me knew already. Knew that they were already beyond saving. Perhaps even knew a bit more. So I didn't resist as she pressed another copper disk into my hand. I pocketed it and listened to the bells toll.
She bowed to me, down on one knee, and again kissed the hem of my robe, and then my ring. I didn't stop her. And I didn't try to stop her as she stooped to pick up her daughter, and then led her remaining children off into the gloom.
Every disaster is a potential profit center. For someone. Wars, hurricanes, chemical spills: each has its own brand of profiteers. When the Black Death struck Europe in the 14th Century, the Church, in its infinite mercy, required payment to ring the bells in honor of the dead, to announce the soul's arrival at the Heavenly Gates. A toll toll, so to speak. Such is the history of the faith to which I have dedicated my life: feeding on bereavement, on despair, on loss.
I don't know what happened to the coins. I checked for holes in my pockets, and I always watched for pickpockets. Somehow I always lost them, somewhere between putting them in my pocket and when I next remembered them. I would have held them in trust for this poor woman, or, in the case of her death, used them to buy much-needed medication for Strahov District. But I lost them all.
We became a plague clinic. They came to us because their families and community feared them. They came to us because the only alternative was to die alone in the streets. There was no space in the clinic for those with other ailments, with broken arms or appendicitis or heart failure. Those people lived or died where they were, with whatever help was available to them there.
Doctor Kovar began to show symptoms. Everyone at the clinic started wearing masks, all the time. Too little, too late.
This time the plague was airborne. The wholesale slaughter of animals in the district was pointless, but it continued. The livestock were butchered. The rats, once ubiquitous, were poisoned, shot, and trapped into a shadow existence. Nothing will ever wholly rid us of rats, not while humans maintain a semblance of civilization, but now only the wisest and cleverest of rat-kind remain to wander the sewers.
The bustle of human community continued, but at a diminished pace. The football games fell silent. Crowds were avoided. People wore bandanas or strips of cloth over their mouths and noses as they made their way through the necessities of daily life.
She came to me every time she lost a child.
Or rather, she came to Strahov Monastery, and I also was drawn there.
And every time, she gave me a coin.
And every time, the motionless, time-ravaged bells tolled.
Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for The Black Death, is known to respond to modern antibiotics. The prognosis for those who are diagnosed early is quite good. At least it was.
We had an eighty percent mortality rate.
Which means that we had done at least a little good. On the streets the mortality rate was closer to a hundred percent. That's the only thing that kept any of us going.
Doctor Kovar collapsed in the hallway, and was moved into the terminal ward. Those of us who had shown no symptoms were banned from the clinic in the hope that we'd escape the fate of the others.
There were other dangers. The army surrounded Strahov District. They strung new razor-wire and ran high current through it. Those who managed to push through the fence were shot. Their bodies were left to rot; nobody from the respectable world was willing to risk infection, though it was likely already far too late. Electric and phone lines went dead. Radio and cellular phones were jammed. Nothing left Strahov District, and nothing came in. People were beginning to go hungry. Only the reduction in population due to Plague saved us from wide-scale starvation.
There was little word of the outside world, except through the underground efforts of shortwave radio operators. It is from them that we knew that the situation in Prague was far from unique.
The last day. The end of days.
I heard this morning that Venice is in flames. Napalm floats on the dirty water and clings to those who leap from burning buildings. Perhaps Strahov District will suffer a similar fate; beyond the fence, we can see troops gathering and repositioning.
She waits for me on this last day at the doorway. Waits, although I've pried the cracked plywood from the frame and broken the locks. Waits, as I knew she would. And I come to her, as she knew I would.
Though it's been over a week since I broke into Strahov Monastery, there is only one set of footprints in the thick dust. No others have dared violate that sacred ground.
Today she's alone; over a week ago she paid me to ring the bell for her last child. The boy had been nearly a teen when Plague took him. In a different world, he would still have been playing football in the streets with his friends, and he'd blush fiercely and completely miss the pass whenever a girl would notice him looking at her. A different world? A better world.
A world not yet forsaken.
I don't know her name, this broken woman who has come to me to bring peace to her children. It's her turn now; she's so wasted by the disease that I don't know how she manages to keep standing.
She turns to me and smiles sadly as she reaches out. I expect her to give me another priceless, useless coin, but she doesn't. Instead, she touches my face with blackened fingertips, and then, one by one, she touches the fat, puss-filled lumps on my neck. Without a word, she takes my hand in hers and leads me into the monastery. But she's too weak, too far gone. There is so little left of her that she's weightless in my arms. She hasn't even left footprints in the dust.
I haven't much more time than she. Perhaps a day. Perhaps not even that. Even as light as she is, I barely make it to the chapel. But I do, and I lay her body at the foot of the altar. I close her eyes and cross her arms over her chest, and I speak the words that are needed, stumbling over the ancient latin words whose meanings I no longer believe. I know the truth now. From the beginning, it's the only thing I could have done for her, though it is far from enough. How do you save someone who has been dead for eight hundred years?
My pockets are full of coins. Overflowing. They spill on the floor at the foot of the altar, and still there's more.
One coin for the soul of the woman who led me to this place. One for Doctor Kovar, not yet cold. One for each of us. They sift through my fingers like sand.
One by one, I take the coins, press them to my lips. One by one, the names come unbidden. One by one, I speak the words, perform the ritual, give voice to the names of the lost, and commend their souls to an undeserving God.
And one by one I place the coins on the altar.
The bells ring forever.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 16th, 2011

Author Comments

The nature of Empire is to fall; that is the one trait universal to all empires. What truly defines an empire is not the glory of its ascendence, or the peak of its accomplishments, but how it behaves in its decline. And that is something that can only ever be understood through the individual stories of the people caught in that tide.

- Bernie Mojzes
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