The Decameron, written in the early 1350s by
Giovanni Boccaccio, is one of the towering classics of Western literature. Written about
(and during) the Black Plague, it stands as a penetrating portrait of human psychology in the face of catastrophe on a mass scale.
Boccaccio’s work is set in the middle of the fourteenth century. As the Plague thundered into Europe, the light of the urbane, shining city of
Florence guttered and dimmed. Panic, despair, and chaos stalked the land, and all within the city sought shelter as best they could. Seven women and
three men, all of the aristocratic class, absconded to a secure villa on the edge of the city, where they could ride out the storm in comfort and
safety. To pass the time, they took turns telling each other stories based on pre-selected themes.* Yet despite their physical security, ability to
draw on great resources, and numerous luxuries, the ten could not escape the creeping darkness of their own psyches, as richly revealed in their
tales. Boccaccio's Decameron is their story, and the story of their stories.
*The ten themes in Boccaccio’s original were, in order: "Misfortunes that bring a person to a state of unexpected happiness; people who have
achieved an object they greatly desired, or recovered a thing previously lost; love stories that ended unhappily; love that survived disaster; those
who have avoided danger; tricks women have played on their husbands; tricks both men and women play on each other; those who have given very
generously whether for love or another endeavor."
For our own dark era, then, I present to you:
(Image above: “A Tale from the Decameron” (detail) by J.W. Waterhouse, 1913)
“I'm sooooo boooooooored,” sighed Stephanie, for what must have been the seventh or eighth time that morning. Or was it evening? wondered Alice.
Locked up in this place, day after day with no windows, it was getting harder and harder to tell for sure. And somehow seemingly less and less
important. “I’ve watched all the DVDs, I hate reading, the computer is just full of scary news, and I’m tired of just sitting here doing
nothing. I already painted my nails three times! Why can’t somebody just do
something for once?” Stephanie went into pout mode, probably
too exaggeratedly for even the men to stomach, thought Alice.
“Why don’t you
do something, then?” asked Alice, tartly. She was not sure how much longer she could take the little twit’s constant
whining and wheedling. “My mom always said if you are bored, it’s because you are boring.” But boring
wasn’t really the word for
Stephanie. More like homicide-provoking.
Of the seven women and three men there in the compound, none was anywhere near remotely as
“How anyone can be bored in the middle of the greatest catastrophe in human history is quite beyond me,” said Henry mildly. He hadn’t looked up
from his place at the desk near the wall, where he was glued to that awful creepy paranoid Internet message board he seemed to spend every second of
his free time on. “Why don’t you read a little about why we’re cooped up in here, the bigger picture? Who knows, you might even find it
interesting.” Henry’s mild exasperation with the airhead was growing, observed Alice with a twinge of inner satisfaction that she crushed out
instantly as unbecoming.
“I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t you drink more?” purred Chrissie from her dark corner, voice husky from an endless parade of cigarettes and
seemingly innate sensuality. Alice wasn’t sure how she felt about Chrissie yet, but at least she didn’t complain much. Unlike Stephanie, whose
squeal seemed more and more like fingers on a blackboard to Alice with each passing hour.
Stephanie turned and squinted into to the shadows where Chrissie had been coiled up on her divan all morning. “We can’t all stay wasted all the
time like you, Chrissie. Frankly, I don’t know how you can stand it. It’s not good for your skin, you know. And I can’t keep up! After a few
hours of partying with you, my head starts to spin and I feel all icky and….” Stephanie broke off suddenly. “Oh! What’s that pounding up
there? What’s going on outside? Can you hear all that pounding?” Her voice fluttered up the pitch scale in alarm.
“What pounding?” asked Henry. He looked at her curiously. Everybody broke off what they were doing and stared at Stephanie. “There’s no
pounding.” There was, in point of fact, no pounding.
“Oh...” Stephanie trailed off, confused. “Maybe…um…maybe I was thinking of something else or, uh, something.” Her small hands wandered to
her mouth, and she began to chew at an already-ragged thumbnail.
“Let’s play a game.” They all turned to Claire. Claire with her seemingly endless store of patience, rationality, and answers. Alice wondered if
this pose of unflappability could possibly be for real, after all they had been through in the past few days, or if something darker lurked below her
amicable surface. Something about Claire’s inner control frightened Alice, but she wasn’t sure why. “What kind of game?” asked Alice, perhaps
a little too sharply. It’s just that annoying bimbo Stephanie on your nerves agin, that’s all. Calm down. Caaaalmm.
Easier said than done.
But why? There was nothing wrong, was there? Here she was in a nice warm room with lovely furniture, plenty of food, and beautiful people…what could
be possibly wrong? There was nothing wrong. Nothing but the end of the world, after all, ha-ha silly me…
“We’ll each tell a story. An interesting story, to take our minds off our…uh, current predicament.” Claire paused. “We’re going to be here
for a while, so how about one per night? One story per person, ten stories, ten nights. Each day a different person will tell us a story.
moaned Stephanie. “I’m awful
at thinking up stuff like that, I can’t think of anything….”
“We’ll each write an idea on a card, stick it in that vase there, and every day a different person picks one out. We can draw straws to see who
goes each day.” Claire was clearly warming to her own idea. Well, and why not?
thought Alice. It’s not like we have anything better to
“I dunno about that drawing straws thing. Brings up some kinda uncomfortable associations with life rafts and stuff like that.” Zack chuckled a
“Fine, we’ll flip coins for it, or do rock-paper-scissors.” Claire was impassive, her sharply etched, aquiline profile half obscured by the
shadows. “It doesn’t matter, really.”
“What the heck, I’ll go first, I recon.” Bill spoke up from his corner, where he’d been sitting all day tinkering patiently with a model naval
boat. Bill didn’t speak much, so when he did, people tended to listen. Something about him made Alice a little scared, but she knew they all owed
the dour grain-man their lives. It had been Bill who secured them huge quantities of food and fresh water when nobody else seemed able to, and when
the panic first overtook the city. He was a gaunt, older man, gray and hardly exciting, but he had a calm stability, and that carried a lot of weight
these days. He may be quiet and hard,
thought Alice. But he has our interests at heart. I think.
She wondered what kind of story a
taciturn man like that would tell.
There was a little flurry of activity and things felt almost like normal again as everybody wrote down an idea for a theme on a card and made a big
fuss of collecting them and putting them in the chipped but elegant vase. Since nobody had any objections, Bill went first. He snaked his long, sinewy
arm down into the vase’s neck and pulled out a scrap of paper. “Misfortunes that bring a person to a state of unexpected happiness.” He read it
out slowly in his ponderous flat Midwestern accent. “Huh. Well, I guess I’ll have to think about that for a bit.” He rubbed his hawklike nose
slowly with his index finger.
“Think as long as you want,” said Claire. “Your audience isn’t going anywhere.” A titter of nervous laughter skated over the group like
leaves on ice.
“Well, then, I’m going back to my room and I’ll be back in an hour with something. Who knows, ya might even like it.”
As long as it’s not about what’s going on outside I’m sure I’ll like it just fine.
Alice was pensive. But of course it’s going to
be about what’s going on outside. One way or another. How could it not be?
NEXT: THE GRAIN-MAN’S TALE… TO BE CONTINUED BELOW...
edit on 3/24/11 by silent thunder because: (no reason given)