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New Decameron Eleven: Sam Mellins

Maya wakes from a dream of eating moss on a spacestation, unsure where she is. She has a crick in her neck, but when she sits up it eases. It is daylight, and sun is streaming through the windows. They have slept for a long time. She goes to the bathroom, and when she comes back she looks at him where he lies asleep, curled up, legs tucked up against his chest. He looks like a real person. There's no fuzz on his face needing shaving away, but not all men have that, do they? Her father does. "Wake up," she says, quietly, and he wakes at once, yawning and stretching and blinking up at her.

"Coffee?" he asks.

"They locked it up," she says. "It's disgusting anyway. And bad for you."

"Did I... didn't I? Where did I?" he fumbles in his pockets. "Oh thank you Hermes!" He pulls out a grey bulb with a nozzle, and drinks from it. "It's the coffee bulb from the spacestation. Self heating." He smiles, smug. "Sure you don't want some?"

"Ugh, no. I'll stick with water."

"Well you drink water and let's read something." He gets up, stretches, touches his toes, then walks in the direction of the bathroom. Maya pokes at the books on the table. She opens Or What You Will. Chapter two seems to be called "Her Dead Horse Book". Then she hears him coming back and puts it back quickly on the bottom of the pile.

"What did you find?" he asks. He's still sucking the coffee bulb, which seems to be inexhaustible as well as self-heating.

Maya quickly grabs the top book on the pile. "Decameron story, a Bocaccio pastiche by Sam Mellins," she says. 

"A modern version of Bocaccio by somebody I never heard of?" he sniffs. "What made you choose that?"

Maya flails. "It looked interesting. And it says here that this is Sam Mellins first publication. So that's really cool. Come on, let's read it."

He sits down in his accustomed chair, and Maya takes hers, and they begin to read.

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Author’s note: This story was written about two years ago, on the heels of my first encounter with The Decameron. It was conceived as a story that could plausibly form part of the Decameron, and is thus written in humble imitation of Boccaccio, both in style and in content. As such, it contains material that to modern sensibilities would (rightly) be considered anti-Semetic and Islamophobic. I myself am Jewish and would strenuously object to any earnest expression of these sentiments outside the realm of fiction. I trust that as Boccaccio first stated, my readers will find that “A healthy mind cannot be contaminated by words which are not so proper, any more than mud can dirty the rays of the sun.” Buona lettura.

With that, Lauretta finished her story, amid laughter and no small amount of blushing on the part of the ladies. They were both amused and scandalized at the story of how a man such as Girolamo, without being inducted into the priesthood, and indeed with no training in the science of theology, and no deeds to his name except being the master of a whorehouse, should have become confessor to the King of Naples, and finally no less than the Vice-Dean of the College of Cardinals. When the laughter had died down, the King motioned to Elissa that she should begin her story, and bowing to his wishes, she began to speak:

Let us speak no more of those, who, being servants of sin and falsehood, nonetheless attain a lofty office in the orders of our mother church (for we know only too well how many of such types exist), but let us speak rather of a man who, despite being humble on this earth, was a worthy servant of Him who is the Creator of all things, and who, though a teller of falsehoods, used those falsehoods to bring gentiles to the worship of the true God, and the practice of the true religion. From such a story, our faith shall surely be strengthened, and if we are not able to do deeds as noble as those of this man whose tale I now recount, perhaps our Lord will nevertheless grant us His favor for recounting the glorious deeds of His servant. 

There was once a Venetian friar, of the Dominican order, whose name was Friar Giuliano. Since taking his vows, he lived on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, where he diligently kept all the offices of his holy order, and was a great student of the blessed Saint Thomas, and even authored a commentary on his Summa Contra Gentiles, which for many years was studied by the novices of the monastery. He was famed throughout the Veneto for his skills as an exorcist, and such was his proficiency that if he was even summoned to a house, the demon in many cases would leave its host without Friar Giuliano even departing the island of San Giorgio. Since the demons knew that they did not stand a chance against his powers, and wished to save themselves the ordeal of being exorcised, they would abandon the Veneto, and go infect Pisans, since there was no Friar there holy enough to expel them. For this reason, the entire city of Pisa is infested with people possessed by demons, to the extent that those who are free from such a pestilence are only a small minority of the city. 

Sixteen years after he first took his vows, Friar Giuliano, during a long period in which he was fasting and contemplating the mystery of the Blessed Cross, was overcome with a great desire to see the sepulcher of our Savior, and to there pray for its release from the dominion of the Saracens and its restoration to the rule of Christendom. Although he knew that it would mean a journey into the dominion of the wicked heirs of Saladin the Wise, so great was his piety that he was willing to undergo this perilous journey for the sake of his devotion to our Lord. After this desire had tormented him for several days, seeing that it was not abating but only growing stronger, and subjecting his whole heart to its consideration, Friar Giuliano went to seek permission from the Abbot to undertake this journey. He explained to the Abbot the nature of his desire, and how it had arisen in his heart in an instant with overpowering force, and how since it had begun to speak to his heart, he found himself scarcely able to think of anything else. The Abbot, a kindly man, who understood how the desire to do acts of holy pilgrimage arises in the heart of a servant of God, was inclined to grant the request of Friar Giuliano. Bidding Friar Giuliano rise from the kneeling posture he had assumed before the Abbot, he spoke to him thus:

“I am willing to grant this request of yours, Brother Giuliano, since I see that it arises from most Godly motives, and reflects the soul of a true servant of Christ,” began the Abbot. “Indeed, I would have granted it already were it not for one thing which troubles me greatly. You know that your skill as an exorcist is greatly famed in the whole Veneto and even in all of Italy, and that you are known both to men and to demons as one most skilled in compelling demons to abandon the men they hold captive. It is due to none other than you that Venice, unique among all the cities of Italy, is kept free of demons, who otherwise would most fearfully attack our people and haunt our canals. If I give you leave to undertake this pilgrimage, who will protect us from demons in your absence? For I should not give you leave to go, even on so holy a mission, if on your return, you should find our city overrun by demons and full of all kinds of wickedness, such as is even today the situation in Pisa. What do you propose be done about this difficulty?”

Seeing his dream within reach, Friar Giuliano did not hesitate in responding to the Abbot. Kneeling again before him, he began to speak: “Most blessed Abbott, I have well considered this question, and it is not without a response that I come before you. It is true that my presence does play some part in keeping our beautiful city free of the presence of wicked demons and spirits. But if I leave, I do not think you would have to fear that the demons would take advantage of my absence. For I will make a solemn vow, to you and to the demons both, that if they do not leave Venice in peace, on my return (surely I will return, for Christ and his Father will guard their pilgrim on his most holy journey), I will not simply cast them out, as has been my custom to do, but will most painfully torture them with all the powers that are at my disposal. Whereas, if, in my absence, they do not torment the people of Venice, I will not torture them on my return, but will merely continue to exorcise them, as has been my custom. I believe that such a vow will be enough to make them leave you in peace for the time I am gone.”

Hearing this, the Abbot was convinced, and kissing and embracing Friar Giuliano, bid him go in peace. Trusting in Christ to convey His servant safely to His sepulchre, Friar Giuliano boarded a merchant ship bound for Constantinople, from which he planned to walk, as befits a humble pilgrim, to Jerusalem. 

But, as an example of the obstacles that the all-powerful Father creates to test the faith of those who serve him, Friar Giuliano’s ship had scarcely passed the island of Isole when it encountered a tremendous storm, which threatened to overwhelm the merchant craft on which Friar Giuliano had purchased his passage. While all of the merchants, thinking only of their own gain, scrambled to secure their cargo, Friar Giuliano knelt down on the deck, and prayed to Christ to grant that he might come safely again to dry land, and that he should be permitted to complete his holy pilgrimage. As he prayed, he and the crew were hit by a tremendous wave, and Friar Giuliano saw the crew washed overboard, and heard their cries for help as they were washed beneath the waves, and then he heard and saw no more.

When he regained his senses, he was on the shore of an island that he did not recognize, on a beach that was totally abandoned. Praising God for bringing him safely to shore, he stood up, and directed his steps towards the forest that bordered the beach, thinking that there he might find some fruit trees from which to eat. A few minutes walk into the forest, he came upon a clearing, where there was a small village, composed of no more than a dozen houses, and a building which, although it did not have a Cross visible anywhere on the exterior, Friar Giuliano took to be the church. Hailing the inhabitants of the village, who numbered some two dozen, he began to speak to them in the Venetian tongue, explaining who he was and how he had come to this island, but hardly had he finished a sentence when he realized that they were not understanding a word that he was saying. Thinking them perhaps to be some variety of barbarians with which he was not acquainted, and thus judging that he should speak to them as one speaks to barbarians and the uncivilized, he began to attempt to communicate with them in the few phrases which he knew in Sicilian. But he met no success in this attempt either, remaining absolutely unable to communicate with them in any manner.

After Friar Giuliano realized that his efforts to speak to the inhabitants of this village had failed, he fell silent, thinking that perhaps if they tried to speak to him, he might be able to understand something of their speech, even if they could not understand any of his. One man, older and wise looking, who seemed to be the patriarch of the island, bowed to Friar Giuliano, and began to speak to him. At first, this man’s speech was to Friar Giuliano just as incomprehensible as his speech had been to the villagers. Friar Giuliano despaired of the possibility of their communicating, and thought that perhaps he might be able to use motions of his hands to beg a little food and water from them, as he considered what he might do next. 

But as he strained to understand their strange and barbaric speech, Friar Giuliano dimly recalled some learning he had acquired from a Jew named Mehalalel, who had educated him in the rudiments of the Hebrew tongue. He had done this learning in order to be able to check the references of the saintly Thomas to the philosopher of the Jews, Moses Maimonides, and while he had never advanced very far in his studies, he remembered something of the vocabulary. He realized that these people whom he had encountered were speaking the very same language that he had once studied with Mehalalel. 

Straining his tongue to capture the semitic sounds which he only faintly remembered from so long ago, he asked the villagers who they were, and how they came to inhabit this otherwise utterly deserted island. The man who seemed to be the patriarch bowed again, and began his reply.

“We are Hebrews,” he began, “For two millennia we have lived on this island, where we zealously observe the customs of our ancestors. These humble houses are our habitations, and the larger building that you see is our synagogue, where we gather on the holy Sabbath day to pray to our God according to the customs of our people. We have had no contact with the world beyond our island since the beginning of our exile here, having no means of contacting our people in their home in Judea. And not wishing to risk the perils of a journey on the open sea, we have remained here, enjoying the simple life of our island, which to us is as the entire world. But in fact, it is strange that now, for the first time in the our history on this island, we receive a visitor. For we, these past several months, have been preparing to uproot this community that was so carefully planted here by our blessed rabbis. We have been building boats that will take us on a journey to Jerusalem. For too long we have lived apart from the Kingdom of Solomon, and the holy temple that he built at the command of the Lord. We wish to return to that temple and to the Land of Israel, and to sacrifice at the temple as did our ancestors, and as they surely still do. If you will consent to be circumcised and immersed in the mikveh which our ancestors built here, we will even invite you to join us on our holy pilgrimage to Jerusalem.”

At this, Friar Giuliano was greatly surprised, not knowing that there existed anywhere in the world Jews who were not aware of the destruction of the Temple of Solomon at the hands of the Romans, and the exile of the Jewish people, and the manner in which, until the present day, they were dispersed across all the nations of the earth, to serve as a living example of that which befalls those who deny the light of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But here, before his very eyes, were Jews who knew of none of these things, and had not only not believed the Gospel, but had never even heard of it. What was he to make of such a collection of people? At first he was inclined to accept their offer, not of circumcision, but of transport to Jerusalem, and there he would complete the mission which he set out from Venice to accomplish, of prostrating himself at the holy sepulchre of the Savior. And if the Jews should find out that the temple that they wished to visit had been destroyed some twelve hundred years hence, that was no business of his. But then, thinking quickly, he realized that in these Jews, divine Grace had presented with an opportunity to complete not the mission on which he set out, but one far more glorious and holy. 

“My brothers,” he began to speak to them, “I, as the first visitor you have encountered from the outside world in living memory, have much to tell you about what has happened in the world since your community withdrew from it. Some of this news will displease you, and fill you with grief about events long since past, but some will delight you, and fill you with joy in even greater measure than your grief.

“First, I must tell you: the temple which you wish to visit is no more. Although many enemies tried to overcome it, and lay waste both it and the holy city of Jerusalem, they all failed. The Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Hasmoneans, the Chaldeans, the Nubians, the Indians, the Romans, and the Mamluks; all attacked it but were repelled by the heroic Hebrews whose God aided them in the defense of their homeland. But just eight years ago, as punishment for the sins of the Hebrews, which, I grieve to tell you, were many and dire, the Lord God gave Jerusalem into the hands of its enemies, the vile Saracens, and allowed the temple to be destroyed, and the Judean people dispersed from its land, and the relics of the temple given into the hands of heathens. You cannot go worship at the temple in Jerusalem; it no longer exists. Where it once stood there is a shrine dedicated to the pagan worship of the Saracens, and their vile rites. Since this destruction, I myself have been a refugee; I was a priest of the temple in Jerusalem, of the order of the Cohanim, but now I am no longer needed in this role, and travel between the communities of the Hebrews in their exile. But, my brothers, let this not lead you into despair. For while the temple no longer exists, I do not wish you to think that the religion of the Hebrews has likewise ceased to exist. It is still practiced among the Hebrews, and is stronger than ever, and has gathered more adherents than it has ever known before. I shall tell you how this has come to be. 

“In the days when the army of Saracens were approaching Jerusalem, most of its inhabitants scorned the threat that they posed, believing that the Lord God would protect them from their enemies, as he had every time before. This would have indeed been the case, were it not for the manifold sins of the people, on account of which God had determined to give the Hebrews into the hands of their enemies. The people of Jerusalem would have been utterly lost, were it not for one man, Yeshua, born of a Nazarene, descended from David the King, the anointed of the Lord to whom the Lord God granted the gift of prophecy to foresee the disaster that would come upon His people. Yeshua prophesied the destruction that was coming, and warned the people of Jerusalem and Judea that they must heed his words, and do as he bid them if they wished to survive the coming storm. Knowing that the destruction was coming, and that there was nothing he could do to prevent it, he determined to save a remnant of the people, by leading them into exile ahead of the destruction of the temple, and this is what he preached to the people. While he was rejected and denied by most of the Hebrew people, who did not wish to listen to his message, and were blind to the truth of his word, some accepted the word of Yeshua, and agreed to be led into exile by him wherever he wished to take them. He led them by land and by ship, to Rome, the greatest city known in the world, where he knew they would be able to continue the practice of their religion, and would escape the wrath of the Saracens who would inevitably destroy the holy sanctuary of the Lord God. 

“Shortly after Yeshua and his followers departed Jerusalem and settled in Rome, the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed and the city laid waste. At the hearing of this news, the Hebrews of Rome mourned the destruction of the house of the Lord, but rejoiced that by this news, it was proven that the prophet that they had chosen to follow was a true prophet, and that they alone, of all the Hebrew people, had been chosen by God, in His unknowable wisdom, to follow the true ministry of Yeshua. In their gratitude to this prophet of God, they pooled the money that they had brought with them and, as the Jews in the wilderness gave to build the tabernacle, they built for Yeshua a magnificent palace in Rome, which they named for his disciple who sat at his right hand throughout his ministry, the holy Peter. Being the seat of one whom the Jews regarded as a king, Yeshua, they named it as the Greeks call a building that is built for a king, Basilica, making the palace of Yeshua the Basilica of Peter the Holy. 

“And further, knowing that the one they had chosen to follow was a true prophet, appointed by God to be the leader of his people, they gave him the title of Meshiah, or in Greek, the Christ, meaning the anointed one of God, making his title Yeshua the Meshiach, or, rendered in the Latin tongue, which is used in Italy and Rome, Iesus Christus. And furthermore, the people called him father, or abba, or in the Greek tongue, Papas, or in the vulgar, Pope. And so convincing was the prophecy and ministry of this Pope, Iesus Christus, that his fame spread throughout Italy and indeed all of Europe, and multitudes came from every province and nation, to hear his message, and to be blessed by him, and to undergo the ritual of conversion through immersion in the waters of rebirth at his hands, such that nearly all of Europe was converted by him, and there scarcely remained a person in the world who had not heard his message, which, according to the customs of the Greeks, he called the “Evangelion,” meaning good news, for most assuredly, it was good news to all who heard it.

“Just a year ago, this Iesus died, and was greatly mourned for many days by all of the Jews he had led into exile in Rome, as well as all those who had converted to the true Judaism of his Evangelion, or Gospel in the vulgar, which, as I have already mentioned, was most of the population of Europe, as well as many of other nations as well. Peter, whom I have already mentioned, had died in the meantime as well, and so the disciple of Iesus, John, succeeded to become Pope John, who now reigns in Rome. 

“So, I urge you, rather than going to Jerusalem, where you will surely be tortured or perhaps even killed by the evil Saracens, who believe that they have expelled all of the Jews from their kingdom, I urge you to return with me to Rome to be immersed into the waters of rebirth, and to be initiated into the Judaism that is the successor of the Judaism of the Temple, I mean, the Judaism of the Evangelion. This is surely what the Lord God, and his prophet Iesus Christus desires of you.”

And so finished the tale of Friar Giuliano, and the Jews, who had been reacting with grief when they heard of the misfortunes that befell their people, and joy when they heard of the good news of the Evangelion of Iesus Christi fell silent as they contemplated the advice of Friar Giuliano. At length, the Patriarch spoke: “Your suggestion finds favor in my eyes, and, with the consent of my people, I will lead us to Rome to be initiated.”

The people enthusiastically approved of this suggestion, from the elders to the children, and uttering cries of joy in Hebrew, made their way to the boats, and that very day, offering prayers and supplications to God most high, and to his prophet Iesus Christus, set off for Rome, where they were baptized, and instructed in the truth of the Christian faith, in which they remain in good standing to this day. And as for Friar Giuliano, he returned to Venice, where, according to the vow that he had made, the demons had not bothered a single citizen of the Republic since he had been gone, but had gone instead to make Pisa a greater haven of sin and devil-worship than ever before. 

It was in this manner then, that Friar Giuliano, a humble Dominican scholar and exorcist, was granted by God the most holy mission of converting perhaps the only community of Jews in the world that had never heard the word of the most blessed Gospel, which truly is the life and the light of all who believe on it, and on the Son of the Almighty Father, Jesus Christ. And though he did it by means of falsehoods (for surely there is no kinder name for the story he told the Jews about the destruction of the temple at the hands of the Saracens), he told those falsehoods in order to bring the Jews to that which is the truth by which all other truths are measured, the Gospel of our Lord. And so, always remembering that faith in the Gospel is the power of salvation to those who believe, let us give thanks to God, who so desires all people to be saved that even through falsehoods, he causes men to believe in his truth, that they may live holy lives, and join the ranks of the angels in paradise.

So saying, Elissa finished her story, which was met with much praise from the entire company, and especially from the King, who considered it to be an exceptionally fine history, most worthy to be told in the company of young Christian men and ladies. 

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"No, I was wrong," he says. "Young Mellins has certainly studied Bocaccio and knows what he's doing. That's really in the spirit of the Decameron, it could almost be one of the original stories. What fun!"

"A bit hard on Pisa," Maya says. 

He laughs. "But being mean to Pisa is also very true to the original. Oh bravo. Lovely. I hope Sam Mellins goes on to write lots more fiction and non fiction. The only complaint I have is the lack of food. Shall we read something else in search of breakfast?" He tucks the grey bulb, now flat and crumpled, back into the pocket of his jacket. "What have we got next?"

Maya picks up the next book "Rebecca Kuang's The Burning God, coming November 2020. The Poppy War got a lot of buzz and award nominations, and it was really fun. Let's read this."

'Did it have food?" he asks.

"I'm sure it had food."

"All right then. I just want some breakfast."

And they read.

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