Mercutio first met Romeo in hell. At least, that was where he had thought he was. Hell, after all, is a place that has no hope left in it. Mercutio had seen his father, his mother, his two older brothers and his little sister fall ill with plague, slowly slipping away each day. His God-fearing neighbors had turned their backs on them, fear stripping them of any semblance of humanity. Eventually, in their panic, the people of Verona nailed shut the doors of every effected house to prevent the spread of contagion or the escape of the doomed inhabitants. He had been surrounded by the continual stink of death, and hope had ceased to exist for him except as a dim memory.
For three weeks Mercutio had lived in that hell, watching helplessly as his family died one by one, but inexplicably the disease did not touch him. However, there was no food left in the house, and he had soon sunk to the level of eating rats, the only creatures to break the edict of quarantine. He began to grow delirious and weaker day by day, his mind becoming unhinged with famine, grief, and terror.
But hell was not to be his final resting place. At long last the door was pried open, and Friar Lawrence had stood silhouetted against daylight so blindingly bright that Mercutio had thought he might be God. The holy man had been horrified at what had been done during his absence to visit one of his superiors in Mantua, and the friar had come to put the dead to rest; he had not expected any survivors. In his shadow had stood a small boy, barely daring to peek around the voluminous folds of the friar’s brown robes. Friar Lawrence had looked down, only just now realizing the child was there.
“Great saints! Romeo, thou must not enterest this place. What dost thou here? No, answer not, I have not time for thy idle prattle. Be a good child and run back to thy parents’ house,” he had said.
“Will he die?” he asked, frowning seriously.
“Fear not,” he said kindly, bending to speak to him face to face with a consoling expression. “There are worse things than death, and those who have treated these poor souls with such contempt have far more to fear than this one does if he be called to his eternal home. But hie thee hence! There’s a good lad.”
With a long backward glance, the little boy ran along the cobbled streets. His eyes had briefly connected with Mercutio’s bleary ones, and somehow in that moment a bond had been forged. Meanwhile, uttering Paternosters and Aves with an urgency that seemed to propel him with superhuman force, Friar Lawrence had carried the weak and ill Mercutio back to the church where he nursed him to health over several months.
Mercutio had been ten years old.