"Deca-meron" by Alexandria Peary
Updated: Aug 25, 2021
“How I make my way through this thicket of information—how I manage it, how I parse it, how I organize and distribute it.” Kenneth Goldsmith
“Blessed citation! Among all the words in our vocabulary, it has the privilege of simultaneously representing two operations, one of removal, the other of graft, as well as the object of these operations—the object removed and the object grafted on, as if the word remained the same in these two different states.” Antoine Compagnon
“Because I could not stop for Death—” Emily Dickinson
“Ever since the world began, men have been subject to the various tricks of Fortune, and it will ever be thus until the end.” Spray down your Amazon packages. Just leave it at the door. Thanks. These instructions were overheard from kitchens, basement apartments, half-opened garages, and second floor windows throughout the day as could floral and laurel laughter in the garden maze at any hour except siesta. This particular garden maze of shoulder-high hedges turned sentence after sentence around the property; composed from sophisticated grafts, these [green sentences] made interchangeable fourteenth century Florence, twenty-first century northeastern United States, and constructed from a story-within-a-story, story ten times ten, for there were ten youths, seven women in their early twenties and three equally jejune men, who had committed to each telling a tale to occupy their fourteen days safely together. As in a waiting room on Zoom, the seven maidens and three knaves sit on the lawn of the preface, the maidens plaiting wildflowers into each other’s hair, worn loose unbound in the style of the age, or else gently debating the merits of taking the Pass/Fail option at the distant castles of universities, lute music playing on a soundbox™… In the early spring of the year the plague began, in a terrifying and extraordinary manner, to make its disastrous effects apparent. Numerous instructions were issued for safeguarding people’s health, but to no avail. “How could that be?” The same was said in Florence and in an American city. Whatever its cause, the disease that had decimated their city had originated some months earlier in the East1, where it had claimed countless lives before it “unhappily spread westward,” growing in strength as it swept relentlessly on from one place to the next (2,13).
It was a time of tremendous sorrow. For not only did people die without having many family members or friends about them, but a great number departed this life without anyone at all to witness their going.19 Online funeral services, held on Facebook or Zoom, people dressed in mourning and holding laptops. Here one day, gone the next, falling directly into the pit as “they extracted the bodies of the dead from their houses and left them lying outside their front doors, where anyone going about the streets, especially in the early morning, could have observed countless numbers of them.” The horse of bones could be seen turning the corner to the Palazzo Vecchio, to the Bargello. [On one of the morgue trucks of the city] “a dying bouquet of flowers was strapped to the metal barrier that closes off the truck from the street, and on the side of the container were the faintly spray-painted words, ‘Dead Inside.’” NYT, May 27, 2020. ( ). Oh, ( ). On Utica Avenue, “Mr. Cleckley said he had used the trucks for overflow storage, but only after he had filled his chapel with more than 100 corpses. ‘Bodies are coming out of our ears.’” (NYT, April 29, 2020). People were dying in isolation in florescent hospital rooms, not enough ventilators, “the ones helping or burying the sick becoming themselves rapidly ill and dying,” insufficient personal protection equipment. Such was the multitude of corpses (of which further consignments were arriving every day and almost by the hour at each of the churches), that there was not sufficient consecrated ground for them to be buried in…huge trenches were excavated in the churchyards, into which new arrivals were placed in their hundreds, stowed tier upon tier like ships’ cargo, each layer of corpses being covered with a thin layer of soil till the trench was filled “to the top.”
Those professions of close contact with the bodies of others were suspended, their practitioners left unsure about their livelihood, awaiting governmental edict. Still others were given status of essential and were asked to volunteer their health and possibly life to obey their employer and so prevent economic carnage. To support their families, youth the same age as our maidens and gentlemen in the Waiting Room in the garden of this narrative, were hired at grocery stores and pharmacies or to deliver packages, masks hanging from van rearview mirrors. “Fewer and fewer people were coming to work—the person from the Meat Department didn’t show up, then the Deli, then the Fish Counter—and so I was doing a lot of overtime. Was I worried? Yes, but what choice…” Hence the countless numbers of people who fell ill were entirely dependent upon either the charity of friends or servants and in performing this kind of service, those who served occasionally lost their lives as well as their earnings. “On Tuesday at work, she started coughing and had to turn away from the client’s bed until told to go home.” Their jobs became a source of horror. Still others’ end of unemployment benefits became a cause of insomnia. For those who conducted business or lessons from home, it was customary portraiture to pose before (preferably white) bookshelves with curated objects, book titles, and photographs of nuclear family or of the powerful and famous, or to use a green screen, i.e.: a saint’s lonely mountain and a winding road through cypress or the Virgin Mary were most popular. These people were not eager to return to commutes or office politics. Working virtually will be the new normal. Office centricity is over. NYT June 29, 2020.
Some people were of the opinion that a sober and abstemious mode of living considerably reduced the risk of infection. (27, 6, 103, 56, 85, 92) Having withdrawn to their comfortable abode where there were no sick persons, they locked themselves in. Their salary (unfurloughed as of late spring) appearing automatically in their coffers. They refrained from speaking with outsiders, refused to receive news of the dead or the sick, and entertained themselves with whatever amusements they were able to devise, binge-watching Netflix, wearing yoga pants: “It was merely a question of one citizen avoiding another, and of people almost invariably neglecting their neighbors and rarely or never visiting their relatives, addressing them only from a distance.” Those related by blood, marriage, or romance stayed six feet away from other groups related by blood, marriage, or romance, selling cars, inspecting power lines, chatting with neighbors, celebrating Easter and then Mother’s Day on plastic benches set far apart, excepting those attending rallies. This scene was repeated in meadows and lawns, on the pavement before big box stores and grocery stores. It replaced the previous universal symbol of humanity: a figure consulting a smartphone.
Others maintained that an infallible way of warding off this appalling evil was to enjoy life to the full through merrymaking, gratifying one’s cravings whenever the opportunity offered, and shrugging the whole thing off as uno scherzo enorme. They flocked to beaches on the Eastern seaboard or tossed beads at carnivals in the South, stepping into vomit puddles dusted with sawdust. They visited one tavern after another, or they did their drinking “in various private houses, but only in ones where the conversation was restricted to subjects that were pleasant or entertaining.” They held parties with prizes to the first to be infected. Still others organized caravans and encircled state capitols, honking horns.
Still others maintained that there was no better or more efficacious remedy against a plague than to run away from it. Swayed by this argument, and sparing no thought for anyone but themselves, large numbers of men and women abandoned their city, their homes, their relatives, their estates and their belongings, and headed for the countryside, an uptick of direct flights to Florida, road trips to Vermont, rentals in the Catskills, Hamptons.
The more I reflect upon all this misery, the deeper my sense of personal sorrow; hence I shall refrain from describing those aspects which can suitably be omitted, and proceed to inform you that these were the conditions prevailing in our city, which was almost emptied of its inhabitants, its restaurants and businesses shuttered, its public transport systems carrying one or two masked, downcast riders, when one Tuesday morning, seven young women, fresh from college semesters that had ended at mid-point, wearing masks of rich fabric and socially distancing on pews, found themselves in the deserted Cathedral of Santa Maria Poema because “[t]he scene for the beginning of the frame story (in preference, say, to a more centrally located church such as the Florentine cathedral, or Duomo) was probably selected because of the association of its name with the telling of a story, or novella.”
To idle the time, one young woman majoring in economics carried a copy of The Grapes of Wrath in her vegan leather messenger bag; two of the other young women carried copies of Love in the Time of Cholera, and Lauretta, the more charismatic of the group, The Decameron in her hobo bag, for it was she who first proposed that they leave the city together, borrowing the idea from the older author.
Lucas volunteered his family’s second home. They could take three vehicles. Maria and Jose, the personal chef and the housekeeper of Giovanna’s family, could be sent ahead to ready the house which had not been used since the previous summer. Giovanna’s parents could spare them.
These lithe, fawn-like women in their early twenties were straight out of Botticelli, while the young men shared the long-locked looks of a young Michelangelo. If the Birth of Venus wore a N95 particulate mask, if the statue David wore a DIY mask, it would be these ten, without irony. While their friends binge-watched The Office and wore sweats 24/7, they dressed elegantly and shaved or arranged their hair, fitting in a workout. They were “well mannered” with a quiet, partial awareness of their privilege which tempered their interactions with essential workers who serviced the house, to whom they repeated their gratitude, Thank you. Be safe. Just leave the package on the driveway. The plumber9, 110 showed up one day with his son, who had to withdraw from the state university where before the pandemic he could barely afford tuition. Leaf blowers and riding lawn mowers operated by townies made quick work of the acres every Thursday, hardly disturbing the pet stag and the peacocks.
The ten youth partook of delicacies and fine wines from their host’s parents’ wine cellar, for they were epicureans even at their modest ages, having been brought to Michelin star restaurants and to Italy and Provence as children. Though the land lay fallow, implements left on the ground where last used, but yet the delicacies still kept appearing, fruits and vegetables and organic snacks, mysteriously. If they ordered a shirt online from Aeropostale or a push-up bra at Victoria’s Secret at drastic price reduction, it arrived, only a few days tardy, same for books or beauty products bought on Amazon, “the ‘Clear Winner’ from COVID-19 Lockdowns.” By mid-April, it became clear that deliveries of the normal would not end, at least for now.
For the first few days, they kept the same schedule, not sure whether it was a Monday or Tuesday, Saturday or Sunday, with the custom of eating brunch in the courtyard, playing board games in their private quarters, reading, or watching YouTube videos. The ten youth gathered at noon after the delicacies were set out by Jose and Maria to watch the “plague diaries,” daily briefings from their governor. Vaccine or no vaccine, when, tests or no tests. Injections of detergent. Taking a Clorox bath. Happy Science & “spiritual vaccines.” A family pack of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, retailing at $3,995 for a family of four. Perhaps the nature of the illness was such that it allowed no remedy; or perhaps those people who were treating the illness, ignorant of its causes, were not prescribing the appropriate cure. And so the ten youth agreed that they would no longer turn on CNN at noon, or in their private quarters in the evening, at lauds, matins, or vespers, for it was no longer tolerable to hear about swallowing detergents.
By the fourth day, Lucas thought it amusing to remove from the walls of his father’s study a plague mask made in China bought on vacation in Venice, with its beak for vinegar, flowers or herbs. He donned the mask and paraded around his family’s small cinema room, an antic which they found mildly distasteful but forbore, keeping in mind Lucas’ loss, his grandfather, a survivor of horrors of the previous century, in a nursing home upstate. Nevertheless, it was clear to Lauretta that they needed to avoid sinking into ribald despair or callousness.
Blocking the movie screen onto which they cast CNN, their wise queen announced, “Good friends, let us entertain ourselves differently, decrease screen time, by telling stories, ten a day, one per person, on a theme.” A leader was appointed for each day, and she or he decided the theme of the following day’s stories, announced at the fire pit. What follows is a few days’ worth of topics:
Heroes and heroines without principles
Heroes and heroines whose principles lead to temporary sorrows
Hollywood romances and pregnancies
Buckingham Palace scandal
Tales of tremendous weight loss or gain
Treacherous individuals in positions of trust or power
Trustworthy individuals in treacherous situations without power
Comeback stories after repentance
They remained regal in their propriety, faithful to relationships back in the city, although their daily tales were bawdy, the hijinks of Hollywood, politicians, religious leaders, massive cover ups, scandals, bed hopping, photoshopping, bribes. (112) They were removed from the troubles of the world, except for the fifth day at vespers when a tremendous row was heard from the summer kitchen. When the youth rushed to see if an accident had befallen the staff, they discovered Maria and Jose shouting in Spanish at the granite kitchen island. Jose had not washed his hands at the kitchen sink upon returning with grocery bags from Whole Foods, not singing even one round of Happy Birthday. It took much diplomacy for the youths to quiet Maria, who had lost several family members in the city to the disease, but they were unable to prevent Jose from quitting. He packed his belongings from the servant quarters, called a friend to pick him up, and departed within the hour. The ten youth conferred and agreed that this crisis could be addressed. Two of the young women had sufficient kitchen skills to help out, having taken private lessons with a TV chef in high school, though who was to fetch groceries was still undetermined by the evening, until Maria made a few phone calls and hired a youth from town.
Gathering around the fire pit, watching the heaped-up sunset, pulling on ivy league sweatshirts to ward off the chill, they wondered what was happening outside the gates of their host’s property, the suffering and job loss, dreams and expectations assassinated from one month to the next, from middle class to a bread line in thirty days, supply lines and fields unpicked, unplanted.
One evening after the next day’s theme had been announced, Phillipa said to the agreement of the others, “It will be six days since we came to stay here, and in order to avoid being joined by others, I think it is advisable for us to move elsewhere. I have already thought of a place for us to go, and made the necessary arrangements.” (28a, 89)
They drove to Marco’s family’s Italianate villa, which had the elaborate gardens necessary to this borrowed tale as well as a central courtyard that stayed cool during the noon hour. But their friends in the city were regularly texting them, and their isolation might soon be broken. Furthermore, they were concerned about decorum. Although they were unaffected by the stories they told one another, behaving like siblings and communicating regularly to their significant others living afar, people talk. Also an apex seemed to be reached in the city. A day with 248 deaths in their state was viewed as an improvement though it seemed a famine might set in, the jobs report grim, the worst unemployment rate, 14.7%, since the Great Depression.
And so it was that after the tenth story on the tenth day, they agreed to end their self-quarantine though fourteen days was recommended, not ten. They would continue the quarantine at home with their families. Next morning they arose at the crack of dawn, all their baggage sent on ahead by the steward, and with their wise queen Lauretta leading the way, they drove into the city. The seven young women were dropped off outside Santa Maria Poema, no convenient parking spot found by their knaves, and they each dispersed safely to their homes. The next few months would resemble the summers of high school, for internships at law firms and at the art gallery were no longer feasible. Thus until the end, and it will ever be, the various tricks of Fortune, men have been subject to. Ever since the world began. Living at home again unexpectedly, they spent a lot of time in their air conditioned bedrooms, beckoned out to join family activities, spending more hours than ever with their parents and siblings, who were unaffected.
Passages in this intertextual garden were taken directly from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, translated by G.H. McWilliam. Not all are demarcated; some are left unpruned and form a different maze of days.
Publisher's note: Our hosting platform, Wix, does not support subscripts. Peary's original footnotes appear in ( ).
Read our interview with Alexandria Peary here.
Alexandria Peary, MFA, MFA, PhD, serves as Poet Laureate of New Hampshire and is a 2020 recipient of an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship in support of her mindful writing workshops for survivors of the opioid crisis in her state. More info about her initiatives can be found @NHPoetLaureate and https://newhampshirepoetlaureate.blogspot.com/ She is the author of seven books, including Control Bird Alt Delete (Iowa Poetry Prize); Prolific Moment: Theory and Practice of Mindfulness for Writing; and The Water Draft. Her poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in the Yale Review, The New York Times, North American Review, web Conjunctions, Southern Humanities Review, Denver Quarterly, New American Writing, Gettysburg Review, and Painted Bride Quarterly. A professor at Salem State University, she specializes in mindful writing, the subject of her TEDx talk, “How Mindfulness Can Transform the Way You Write”: How Mindfulness Can Transform the Way You Write | Alexandria Peary | TEDxSalemStateUniversity - YouTube