Recently, I was asked to describe the funniest thing I had ever seen. This is a difficult prospect, as I have seen a great deal and it largely depends upon the onlookers sense of humor.
Dark humor, someone has requested.
Therefore I will tell you the very first story I recall — that of my awakening on this earth (obviously it was not the first time, as my books record, but it is the earliest memories I have that provides the beginning of all the contiguous experience of my mind from thence to now. This is the beginning of “Simon” as it were, for I knew nothing else until recently, after some 7 centuries). Please recall, that because this is my first memory, it is jumbled, is pieced together from a great deal of hindsight, and really was quite a conundrum to me until I had experienced another hundred years of that certain mingled human stupidity and cleverness that alternately undermines and composes your condition.
Some of you recollect that I have mentioned awakening on the shore of the Black Sea in a pool of bloody ooze. I haven’t been much more specific than that, because I don’t know how to be. It is simply what happened. I opened my eyes, and there I was, and I was naked, and there was dirt and blood and I was covered in it. I have mentioned stealing clothes from a plague victim, and that is true, but I haven’t exactly said how that came about. So here we are.
How best to tell it? From the vantage of newly awakened me? Or from the all-seeing eye of modernity? I think perhaps, the funniest way to tell it is how it was lived, though at the time, there was nothing humorous about it. In fact, it was utterly confounding.
I stood up. I had a good sniff. After a bit of sussing, I felt I could tell that there were other living things around me. I felt I knew that there was a limit to my movements. I don’t know how else to explain it but as the mental equivalent of standing at the bottom of a steep hill and looking to the summit in that sensation of resignation that yes, you will have to climb the hill (this happens to monsters too. We haven’t any stamina.) As I stood there, looking around with more than just my eyes, I don’t recall thinking in words. I thought in feelings, impressions. I considered the feelings I was encountering- that notion that there were boundaries that had to be obeyed. For example, when I made to follow the coastline- it was obviously impossible in that direction, but what of the other? No? Oh. How nice.
So I did. I picked my way through a very lovely green terrain, until I came closer to the water. From where I was, I had an excellent vantage of what was a harbor. Of course to my eyes at the time, it was simply a busy place bustling with human life. I hid myself away and watched, for a great long while, learning furiously.
There were moving creatures on boats, and moving creatures on the shore. There was a city with high walls, not the highest I have since seen, but at the time quite formidable. A steep rampart made climbing to the foot of the wall a challenge, and several barricades had been constructed to lean against this. Creatures stood on them looking up at the other creatures on the top of the wall, and there was a curious exchange happening. Some shouting, but mostly, a calm conversation. This was my first experience with speech. I don’t rightly know what was being said, but it was clear that the creatures on the barricades wanted something, and the creatures on the wall were telling them to piss off.
On the ground, especially on the water’s edge, there were many creatures simply lying there, unmoved. I decided that I wanted to look at the still ones. So I snuck closer. This was the first time I remember seeing a dead body, and the hunger hit me with such force and sharp need, that I don’t remember much, except that I was on my knees and digging my hands in before I could blink. The body in question was…ripe. It was at least a day or two old, bloated and purplish. Its time in the water had done it no favors, and it had massive blackish splotches on its skin. To me, these seemed odd, but I did not poke at them. I ate what I could. It did not taste all that nice, but it made me less hungry, which was the point. As I ate, I looked back at the city and I watched what was happening. Every so often, a group of creatures would huddle at the wall overlooking the water, and they would toss a dead body over the side.
What an odd thing to do.
I watched the bodies hit the water and slowly sink. Some were wedged between boats. Some rolled in the tide and were knocked about like buoys. It occurred to me then that the creatures on the wall were not eating the meat if they were tossing it over the side. They didn’t eat the dead, and so how odd I was for doing so. Like Adam and Eve having tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, I looked up from my meal and knew my nakedness. I stole the clothes. But having no understanding of how to put them on, it all happened in a rather comedic fashion. I removed the clothing with tugs that tore the fabric, and found that when I put my own limbs in, the things hung on me like sacks and stank of death. It didn’t bother me, per say. It was simply a little blinding.
I wandered along the harbor area in my ill-fitted, tangled clothes. I found that the people around the city seemed to avoid me, rather pointedly, but there was no malice in it. They simply glanced my way in expressions of wide eyes and open mouths (what of them had blank faces, as most were wearing cloths over their noses and mouths). I had no idea why they were not hostile to me, in fact they seemed as if they didn’t mind me at all, which was somehow comforting. I was nevertheless keen to stay away from them, but none came any closer than about thirty yards.
Then a curious thing happened. I looked on what I can now describe as an encampment of men. Many bodies were lying on the ground moaning. Some of them were dead, but most were either quite obviously alive and suffering, or were comatose and seemingly presumed dead, as they were unceremoniously dumped in piles. I could hear their hearts, mind you. It seemed obvious to me that most of these things were simply lying there, as if they couldn’t be bothered to move. I did not know about sleep really, but knew I had been on the ground but hours before and so they must also find themselves on the ground occasionally. The ones moaning and groaning were seeping all sorts of liquids, and some of them were splotchy. Their still-ambulating counterparts were paying them no heed. No one even came near them, except me. With one eye to the other men in their shiny bits and padded garments and one eye to the bodies beneath me, I picked my way through. Suddenly, several men stomped up to the edge of my little crop of bodies and plucked one. This one was still alive, as will become quite evident.
Faces averted as best they could, expressions of disgust in place, the men took hold of this comatose body and heaved it up. They carried it down the shore and came abreast of a large wooden…thing. I had looked at the thing before, but it wasn’t moving. I thought it some other construction, like a piece of the city jutting out. It wasn’t. It was a trebuchet – a catapult.
Up went the slumbering sick man, into a little bucket. Men worked at the wheel as the winder went. There were odd clicking sounds and a soft humming to my ear, deep and low. After a long while, someone shouted a word, and instantly, with astounding percussive compression and force, something triggered, the great arm swiveled, I crouched instinctively, and with movement like the wind, the poor- now awake- dying man was hurtling through the air, screaming like a terrified comet.
What the devil? thought I, though not in so many words.
Why should these creatures build such machines? And why would they throw dead or dying counterparts with them? What sort of madness was this? What is the point of hurling a dead animal at someone else?
Then I decided it was best not to come any closer.
I backed out of the bodies and retreated to a small copse of trees. It had been hacked to bits, it seemed, by the groups of creatures stocking along the ramparts and swarming near the ships- pieces of lumber and splinters of wood were everywhere. I sat down and watched in stunned fascination as body after body was hurtled over the city walls, and body after body was retrieved and tossed over the wall into the water. It was all a terribly amusing recycling process and I remember wondering what it could possibly accomplish except to give flightless things a chance at soaring heavenward in their final moments, before being dashed into the water to rinse off their dust. I wondered if the cycle would repeat, or if it was something they only did to fresh bodies.
Eventually, I left the area, but not before eating a few more times.
Much later, I realized the complete meaning behind what I had seen. What I witnessed was a full scale siege – that of the Genoese city of Kaffa. You see at this time, the Tartars of the Golden Horde had allowed this conquered territory to rule itself through commerce and capitalism. Italians had made many monetary investments and purchases in the region, stimulating growth and lining pockets. In a neighboring town, a scuffle broke out between Italians and Tartars, resulting in a Muslim death. The Italians at fault fled to Kaffa, and to the shock of the Tartars, the Genoese refused to let them in. The military showed up and laid the siege…never realizing they had already been infected with the new dread scourge- the Black Plague. When the army began to die off, the commanders made a shocking decision – to hurl the bodies of the plague victims over the walls of the city. The inhabitants tried to hurl the bodies back out, but the plague caught.
Enter me – wearing a dead man’s clothes, looking every inch the modern zombie, wandering the plague victims in vague, goo-covered ambivalence. Those who saw me were probably accustomed to the sight of staggering half-dead mean (that was then the natural course of many diseases), but I dare to guess that some probably thought me some sort of omen. They avoided me because I probably looked like the pale rider. The men of the day, especially the Tartars, were notoriously superstitious.
This artists’ rendering of the siege of Kaffa is inaccurate in most respects, but I thought you might enjoy it, anyway.
Eventually the siege broke and the scant remaining Tartars buggered off. The Italians ran as fast as they could to escape the plague with which they’d been confined. When their ships left port, I snuck aboard. We stopped at a few places. I got off at one. And by a skipping means, traveled my way across the Italian peninsula, and then on to France.
The year of this arrival to France was 1348. The year the Black Death came…in fact, it likely came from the very ship in which I rode. One of the reasons why my memories of Marseilles are not so fond.
This is a very horrifying thing, yes? But to me at the time it was completely ridiculous. I have laughed at the feelings I had that day more than once since then. I laughed again when I read an article written by a specialist in communicable disease that said there was no feasible way that a corpse could spread plague by being flung through the air. Dead bodies don’t carry the plague, parasites do, and parasites leave within an hour of death. And so it is more likely that the Golden Horde brought death-carrying rats and fleas with them, and that these somehow found a way into the city, breaking the siege much faster than the catapulted corpses ever would.
I can still hear that poor man’s yelp as he shot through the air. What a rude awakening. One is utterly spent, aching, feverish, bleeding from orifices, resigned to death, and then whoosh! One is shooting through the air as a cursed missile and one’s final moment is as blunt as the side of a building.
To me, at least, this is very funny.