The plague doctor’s mask—as well as the rest of his gloomy attire—was invented by Charles de L’Orme, chief physician to King Louis XIII, in 1619. The masks were made of either thin leather or heavy, stiffened cloth. The beak portion was approximately 6 or 7 inches long. The eye holes were protected with red-tinted glass, presumably to frighten away evil spirits. The rest of the doctor’s attire consisted of leather trousers, shirt, boots, and gloves, with an overcoat made of heavily oiled canvas-like material.
The beak had two nostril holes, and the end was stuffed with a variety of strong-smelling herbs, including mint, cloves, camphor, and rose. This was supposed to filter out the “bad air” that people believed was the cause of the plague.
There have been differing views as to the purpose of the doctor’s long wooden cane. Most likely it was used to help move patients without touching them. There are some historians, however, who believe that the doctor’s cane had a far more sinister purpose. During the time of the plague, some highly religious people believed that the sickness was the result of God punishing them for their sins. Supposedly they would throw themselves before the doctor and beg him to flog the sin out of them, thus preventing them from getting the plague.
As for the “medicine” the plague doctors doled out? Powdered spiders and toads, wine baths, urine baths, stimulants, purgatives, and plenty of blood-letting. They also instructed their patients to not dwell on death, but to think of the things they held dear. I can’t help but wonder how many people died or were made sicker by these bizarre cures.
Michel de Notredame, better known as the famous seer Nostradamus, was also a plague doctor. This was in 1529, before Charles de L’Orme invented the primitive biohazard suit, so Nostradamus never got to wear the iconic bird-mask. He did, however, advise treatments that actually made sense: clean water, fresh air, and herbal teas made with the juice of rose hips.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE TUSCAN PLAGUE DOCTOR
Available now from Barking Rain Press
Of course, the thought was totally ridiculous. This box, along with three others, had been sealed shut with an abundance of silver duct tape and stored for days in an airless metal shed. Anything alive inside would have died a particularly horrid death from heat stroke. She scolded herself for coming up with such a ghastly idea and put the box down so she could dig her key ring out of the pocket of her jeans.
Waves of unseasonal heat rose up from the sidewalk, wrapping around her legs and causing a trickle of sweat to wander down her back as she unlocked the back door of Mason Valley Antiques. Temperatures in this part of Nevada were nowhere near as hot as they had been in Las Vegas, but it was still quite uncomfortable. Besides, it was mid-October, for Pete’s sake. Apparently Mother Nature hadn’t gotten the memo. She could hear the rumble of the air conditioner coming from inside the shop. Jake had forgotten to turn it off again yesterday, but this time she was glad. Her leg brushed against the side of the box as she struggled with the sticky lock. It felt strangely warm for having been next to the car’s AC vent.
The wooden door shrieked against its frame, causing the cluster of Christmas bells tied above it let out a startled jingle as Zolena pushed it open. A wave of blessedly cool air rushed out to greet her. She shoved the box inside with her foot, and the ancient duct tape holding it together finally split, giving up its mysteries by spilling them out onto the scuffed hardwood floor.
“Crap.” The thirty-year-old business owner sighed as she surveyed the mess, and she tossed her car keys to the raven-haired young man beside her. “Jake, go get the last box, will you? Use the hand cart. It’s a heavy one.”
“No need.” Jake’s brown eyes squinted in amusement. “I’m Italian. Nothin’ but muscle.” He flexed his arms to demonstrate.
Zolena sighed again and rolled her eyes. For what Jake lacked in the knowledge of antiques, he more than made up for in wit. “Go,” she commanded with a laugh. She flapped her hand in the general direction of the door. A tendril of her dark auburn hair escaped its bobby pin moorings, and she swept it out of her eyes. “Grab the beer, too!”
She knelt next to the ruined box and carefully scooped some of the scattered hodgepodge into a loose pile: some fragile looking crocheted doilies, an abstract sixties-era ashtray, and what looked like a Steiff teddy bear. It was good to know there were at least few noteworthy items. The three sealed boxes she had procured at the auction yard had been labeled “Grab Bag-Asst. Collectibles,” and she had bid on the set on a whim.
She had no idea exactly what was inside the boxes, but the little shop she had bought four months ago needed interesting bric-a-brac for the antique étagères, china cabinets, and display cases. Zolena was determined to make this shop every bit as successful as the two she owned in Vegas. Fortified by cold beer, the shop’s proprietress and her assistant began pawing through the contents of the boxes.
“We’ll have our own little Antiques Roadshow,” Zolena remarked with a grin.
Jake winked and gestured to the odds and ends scattered on the floor. “More like Antiques Floorshow,” he said, proud of his little joke.
She pulled a wry face and tried not to smile, “Very funny. Let’s do this.”
Something about the aroma of antiques had always appealed to Zolena; the blend of dust, mothballs, cobwebs, and old books was intoxicating. She rummaged through the boxes with a dreamy half-smile on her face, removing various little treasures from their nests of yellowed newspaper.
She discovered an ancient-looking gold ring, set with three tiny rubies, tucked inside a vintage powder box; a disintegrating canvas pouch filled with wheat back pennies and old-fashioned keys; and a cranberry glass saltshaker in the shape of an elephant. Not bad so far. She set the elephant shaker aside, planning on keeping it for herself, and then turned her attention to Jake.
“Find anything good yet?” she asked.
He sat cross-legged on the floor across from her, scratching his ankle and squinting over a stack of crumbling comic books. They had not been stored properly, and it showed in the way the pages tore at the slightest touch.
“No,” he said. “This sucks. We’d probably get a good price for these if they’d been taken care of.” He held one out for her inspection. “Look at this. A 1935 Popeye, first edition. It would be worth at least sixty bucks in good condition. It’s trash now.”
To Jake, a comics geek of the highest order, this was sacrilege. With a sigh that was almost mournful, he relegated the stack of decaying comics to the trash can next to the counter.
“Totally sucks,” he said again.
“Hey, no worries,” Zolena reassured him. “Just keep looking. I’m sure you’ll find something else we can use.”
Comics did not interest Zolena much, but she could relate to his disappointment. She would have felt the same way had she discovered a shattered piece of carnival glass, or a broken Hummel figurine. She opened a beer and slid it into his hand. “Cheer up. They’re just comic books.”
“Just comic books? Are you serious?” Jake clasped a hand over his heart, and turned his face heavenward. “How can you say such a thing, boss lady?” He grinned at her then to show he was joking, and twin dimples appeared on either side of his expressive mouth.
A heap of crumpled newspapers had accumulated in a circle around the two of them, and their fingers were covered with age-old dust. A long tendril of spider web dangled from Zolena’s ponytail; her jeans were smeared with grime and newspaper ink. It was weird seeing her dressed down like this, Jake thought.
Normally she wore fancy high heels with form-fitting skirts or dresses, and her hair and make-up were always perfectly done. He secretly thought of her as an exotic orchid, lost among the sagebrush and cacti of the Nevada desert. Somehow, seeing her like this made her even more appealing.
It was good to know that Zo could roll up her sleeves and get dirty once in a while; plus those soft, faded jeans looked great on her. That ex-husband of hers had been an idiot to cheat on her. Who in his right mind would cheat on an awesome lady like Zolena?
There was a pile of salvageable, sellable items on the floor next to them. The treasures outnumbered the trash, and Zolena was pleased. The blade of her box cutter made a brisk, efficient zipping sound as it sliced through the tape that bound the flaps of the last box. Her hand shot to her mouth and she scrambled to her feet when she saw the first item. It was black, hairy, and had eight legs.
“Jake! Kill it! Shit!”
“Huh?” He looked up from the moth-eaten Civil War cap in his hand. His laughter at the plight of his boss, while not unkind, could not be helped. Zolena’s eyes were huge with fear, and she had backed herself up against the glass-topped counter. He set the gray wool cap down and peered inside the box.
“Oh, sweet! That’s a huge sucker!” His crooked grin widened, and the spider scuttled towards the edge of the box when he reached for it.
“Smash it!” Zolena was practically climbing over the counter now.
“Naw, Zo. He’s cool. Look, I think he just wants to say hello!”
She was neither convinced nor impressed by his words. Spiders were Zolena’s kryptonite. “Damn it, Jake! If you don’t smash that nasty thing right now, you’re fired. I mean it!”
The spider traveled down the side of the box and sped across the floor in a mad dash to get away from the two humans who had disturbed its sanctuary. Jake reached into the pile of miscellany without looking and grabbed a weapon. He swung his arm in a dramatic arc, and the crumpled leather object in his hand reduced the fleeing arachnid to a wet smear on the floor. Zolena made a theatrical gagging sound and screwed her eyes shut.
“Can you take care of that, too? The guts and the legs and the goop? Please?”
Jake’s smile was good-natured, but he shook his head slowly from side to side as he cleared away the evidence of the small murder he had just committed. Zolena was a cool boss, but the whole ‘scared of spiders’ thing was ridiculous.
“It’s cool now,” he informed her, beckoning her back with a wave of his arm. “Come on back. I sent him to spider heaven.”
Although she had seen him dispatch the eight-legged nasty, she inspected the floor carefully before sitting down again.
“I hope there aren’t any more,” she said, a bit embarrassed by her performance.
“Naw, it was just a dumb old grass spider. It wasn’t going to hurt you.” He looked down at what he had used to kill the spider, and frowned. The object he held in his hand looked like the severed head of some mummified mutant creature, and a feeling of revulsion raced down his spine.
“What the hell is this thing, anyway? Some kind of purse or something?” He turned it over in his hands.
It was the color of dead leaves, and slightly oblong in shape. A long, cone-shaped piece protruded from its center, flanked by two red, glass circles resembling a pair of eerie spectacles. The leather was cracked in a few places, and looked quite fragile. Amid the spill of bright trinkets and charming memorabilia, this was a horror. Jake wiped away dust and spider juices with a scrap of ruined comic book.
“If it’s a purse, it’s a damn ugly one. It looks like a giant bird’s head from out of a nightmare.” He toyed with the leathery cone, scraping away a layer of grime with a thumbnail, and then tossed it aside.
He hated the way it felt—ghastly and flabby, and weirdly warm—like a giant mushroom he had once discovered under a cottonwood tree when he was a kid. Hopefully, Zo would toss this nasty thing in the trash. It could not possibly be valuable.
“Hey, careful! That might be something we can use! Here, let me see it.” Zolena reached over to pick up the strange article, and inspected it closely.
An unsettling sensation crept over her as she held the seemingly innocuous piece of cast-off junk in her hands. Her arms broke out in a rash of gooseflesh and her scalp prickled. It was as though it were alive; she almost expected it to turn over in her hands and draw a deep breath, bellowing out its cracked leather sides like some sort of hellish balloon. Then she realized exactly what she held in her hands. She dropped the grotesque object into her lap and let out a sharp, excited gasp.
“Oh, holy crap! I don’t believe it!” Her voice came out in a shrill whisper and her hands rose, trembling, to her mouth.
“What? What is it?” Jake spun around to look at her, and alarm rose in his chest at the sight of her suddenly pale, bloodless face. A sheen of sweat misted her forehead despite the air conditioned coolness of the shop, and her green eyes were huge, almost frightened looking.
“Zo? You okay?”
Her head rose and fell in a single nod, and she picked up the leather object again. “I’m okay. It’s just…too hot today, I think.” She pointed at the thing in her hand. “I think this is a plague doctor’s mask, Jake. A real one.”
She drew an arm across her face, wiping off sweat and dust, then drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’ve never seen one of these things before except in pictures. Look at the superb condition it’s in.”
“Superb?” It looked like a piece of worthless junk to Jake, something one might find at the bottom of a bin at a ghetto thrift shop. It gave him the creeps; there was nothing superb about it. Nothing that he could see, anyway. “And what do you mean, plague doctor’s mask? Like the bird masks people wear at Carnival?” The thing did resemble a bird mask somewhat, albeit a really ugly one.
“Yeah, kind of. Doctors wore them during the Black Plague. They were like a makeshift gas mask.” She indicated the beak-like cone with a slightly trembling finger. “This part was filled with herbs and stuff. They believed that would filter out the bad air or something. The ‘miasmic theory,’ I think it’s called.” Zolena rose to her feet in a lithe movement and went behind the counter to fetch her laptop. She entered ‘plague doctor’ into a search engine, and turned the screen around for Jake to see.
The image on the screen was a woodcut of a man wearing a long black cloak, heavy gloves, boots, and a round brimmed hat. He carried a long stick, and his face was obscured by a grotesque, long-beaked mask. Jake’s eyes narrowed and his brow furrowed under the bill of his baseball cap.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “One of the football jocks in college had a Halloween costume like that. Scared the crap out of the girls.” Under the picture was a seventeenth-century poem, and he read it aloud in his best creepy voice.
“As may be seen on picture here,
In Rome the doctors do appear,
When to their patients they are called,
In places by the plague appalled,
Their hats and cloaks, of fashion new,
Are made of oilcloth, dark of hue,
Their caps with glasses are designed,
Their bills with antidotes all lined,
That foulsome air may do no harm,
Nor cause the doctor man alarm,
The staff in hand must serve to show
Their noble trade where’er they go.”
He raised his eyes from the screen, and was relieved to see that some of the color had returned to Zolena’s face, and she had lost that horrified expression. “So you really think this is one of those plague masks?” He reached over to pluck it from her lap. He did not really want to touch the damn thing, but he felt bound by a sense of duty. He was, after all, her assistant; as such, he should be assisting her. “Let me see if I can smooth it out a little so we can—”
She swatted his hand away, more roughly than she had intended. “Don’t touch it!” she hissed. “That leather could crack at the slightest touch! I don’t want to have it ruined before I can even find a buyer.”
Jake pulled his hand back, mortified. Zolena had never snapped at him before, not even when he had clumsily smashed an antique tea cup while he was dusting shelves. He had seen her get excited about antiques before, but this was just a grimy old piece of leather. His shoulders rose in an apologetic shrug and he returned his attention to the box of antiques and collectibles. A second later his trademark smile returned to his face and he let out a whoop of triumph. He had discovered more comics.
“Detective Comics with Batman! And they’re in protective sleeves like they should be!” He cradled the three vintage comic books in his arms with something approaching reverence. “Can I have them, Zo? Please? You don’t have to pay me for today if you’ll let me have these.”
Her nod of agreement was barely discernable. The plague doctor’s mask fascinated her. The tip of her finger described a circle around one of the red glass eye pieces and she felt a second wave of goosebumps rising on her arms. A sort of static rose from the artifact when she touched it—an odd crackling sensation, a feeling of residual sadness and anger—bizarre, yet oddly pleasant.
“Zolena?” Jake passed a hand back and forth in front of her face. “Hey, you in there, boss lady?” Maybe she got a little too much sun today, he thought. Either that or she’s been working too hard.
“Huh?” Zolena wrenched her gaze away from the mask, her expression dazed and blank. “Oh, yeah. Sure, Jake. Help yourself to the comics. You’ve earned them.” Her hand remained on her newfound treasure, the brittle leather warm and almost alive under her palm.
“Thanks!” He slid one of the vintage comics out of its plastic sleeve and examined it like a jeweler studying a particularly fine gem. “Mint condition! Not a wrinkle or a tear anywhere!”
Jake’s exuberance was infective and she felt immediately sorry for snapping at him; she could not even remember why she had done so. Despite the unsettling experience she had just had, a slow smile spread across Zolena’s face.
“Let’s finish this up,” she said, “then I’ll give you a ride home. We can hit the drive-through if you’re hungry. My treat. I know I could use a burger. Maybe even two.”
Her stomach rumbled in agreement. She was suddenly ravenous.
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