We find that bureaucracy occasionally serves a higher purpose, Death rights a wrong, and there is much remembering. Please enjoy:
12. The Doorman
Peter manned the door to the underground bar, the Tyrolean, in his old Russian coat with the chess pieces in the pocket. When Death and Moira appeared across the street, he noted the lack of War, and the particular presence of the scythe with what was most certainly not rust on its blade. Moving a piece from one pocket to another, he said nothing when they approached. Moira nodded to the angel, but Death steadfastly ignored him.
War’s absence was felt in everything at that moment, a confused stuttering among the mortal men whose hearts were devoted to him and a settling comfort through the beasts and grass and winds. Peter knew it would not last. He opened the door for the Incarnations, shut it again, and shooed away a little girl with crossed eyes and a burning faith that would be her undoing. When she refused to budge, he reached in a pocket and tossed her the moved piece: a red knight on a fearsome hound. He could carve another. She tested it on her crooked teeth before setting off at a determined march.
The angel watched the sky and hoped that, inside, the boss wouldn’t be too angry at the loss of War. After all, they really couldn’t afford to lose Death twice.
13. The Minutes
In the basement of the Tyrolean, they came to a heavy brocade curtain over a door. Death saw Moira pause, consider her somewhat grisly attire, and he slung the scythe to a more comfortable position on his shoulder and went ahead of her. Let them see the evidence.
The Devil stared at them briefly before touching the brim of his hat to Moira. “Well done,” he murmured. His moustache smoothed with the tip of a long finger, he hid his smile behind a glass of bourbon. How interesting things remained, despite the trudge of millennia.
Clothos began to stand, then sat again, beaming at her sister. In that moment, Death searched within and found that even in the dusty recesses of joints and old fractures, there remained no trace of his former certainty of her demise.
He had saved her.
He would inform her of this directly, after his proverbial butt had been saved. He anticipated bounteous thanks.
They crossed the floor and stood in front of a man with his head in his hand as he sat at a table, eyes closed. Next to him, Chamuel droned on, hunched like a vulture over an immense tome and not pausing even as he nudged the man with his elbow.
“Eh, what. Oh, Death.” He lifted his head and smiled, eyes brilliant blue. “How good it is to see you again. I decided to take a break from the voting, as it had been somehow neglected that we read the minutes of the last meeting. Luckily, Chamuel had the ledger, and he’s been catching us up. Must remain official, you know.” He winked. It was not a subtle wink.
The Devil pulled his hat over his eyes and sighed.
“Moira, my dear. Wonderful that you could join us. Have you tried this bourbon? Uriel got it somewhere, I don’t know where, but it is positively sinful.” He chuckled. “Eh, my son?”
Drumming his fingers on the table, the Devil acknowledged the sinfulness of the liquor.
Moira did not try the bourbon. Neither did Death. He laid his scythe on the table.
“I have killed War.”
“You have not killed him, any more than you were killed. He will return to us.” The man touched the scythe, and it was clean. Standing, slowly, He turned to Chamuel. “Have we reached the end of the minutes?”
Chamuel nodded, thumped the book shut, and went to sit next to the Expiry, whose tail flicked restlessly.
He went to stand in the middle of the room. The expectant faces of angels, saints and Incarnations looked at Him, looked at Death, and more than one took a long look at the scythe on the table.
“Before voting resumes, you should consider three things.” He held up a pudgy finger. “First, the evidence suggests that this Incarnation holds the full properties of the office of Death, even those that are not available to successors. For instance, the death knell rings within him, giving him the knowledge of the potential death of every creature. Also, he may take those souls which even I have designated as prohibited.”
“What? What’s that mean?” demanded the Expiry.
Death reached in his bag and drew forth the soul he’d removed from the hidden room in the catacombs. It babbled like a child, and he whispered to it that it would be all right.
He set it on the table before the Expiry. “I think you know where this should go.”
The Expiry glanced at Him, then carefully tucked the bit of soul in the pocket of his vest.
“I do,” he said, and nodded to Death respectfully.
“Also, this Incarnation has the ability to cause the death of any mortal creature he deems fit, not just the human ones.” There was a murmur amongst the crowd. “This includes, at last count, a terrier dog, a donkey, a ginger cat, and a black bear. Have I missed any, Death?”
Death ignored Moira’s stare, shuffling his feet. “There was that chimpanzee in that little zoo…”
“And a chimpanzee,” finished the man. “Second thing to consider before you vote, or for anyone wishing to change their former vote: anyone who votes for the termination of this Incarnation will be banned from the weekly card night for a period of not less than six hundred years, and in addition, all holiday requests will be processed directly through me. I hear that Disneyworld in July is an especially wonderful time to visit.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” said the Devil, rolling his eyes.
The man brightened, raising his hands. “Shall we vote? Who votes to keep Death in his current capacity as, well, as Death?”
The Devil downed his bourbon, raised a hand, and made his way to the curtain. Scourge, hunched and pale, scurried after him, pulling back the curtain.
“I shall be at the game on Friday,” the Devil announced. “I hope to see all of our regular players there. Death, congratulations.”
“The vote isn’t over,” he said.
“Yes. Yes, it is.” He tipped his hat. “It’s good to have you back, old friend.” He disappeared through the curtain, Scourge following only to appear a moment later, hand raised.
“Me. Er, I vote for Death. To keep him.” He left again.
When the vote concluded, most unsurprisingly, all were in favor of Death continuing on.
“Excellent. Death is officially not terminated. You are all dismissed, and Love, I believe it is your turn to pick a replacement. I'll expect your choice for War before me by tomorrow,” He said. As the celestial council filed out, he turned to Death. “I knew Moira would sort you out. So pleased. Yes. So very pleased by this outcome. You’ll be back on the job then, straight away, won’t you?”
Death hefted the scythe, weighing it in his hands. “Straight away,” he said.
The basement of the Tyrolean bar smelled like mildew and old garments. He was glad to leave it behind.
14. Straight Away
He didn’t see Moira again for some time. First, he found his way back to the hidden room in the catacombs. All of the souls clamored for release, and he put each and every one in his bag. When the room was finally, utterly silent, he left. The Expiry then put each and every bit of mirror in a velvet-lined box, and promised that they would reach their reward in timely fashion. Death said nothing this visit, even as he was handed the mass of ticker tape that was his work.
After that, he dutifully found every scrap of misplaced tape in his house, and he began to catch up on his backlog. He moved through the world from death to death, allowing no time to think of anything else.
When he laid the last bulging bag on the Expiry’s counter, the harried Incarnation said an actual “Thank you” and gave Death, in return, a slip of paper that was not a list of names, times, and coordinates.
It said simply, “The beach.”
Death took his empty bag and left.
15. The loneliest beach on earth
“I’ve been here four days, you know.”
Moira walked across the cold sand, her gown the white of diamonds. She sat next to him. “I thought you deserved a break.”
“Apparently, I was on a thirty-thousand year break.”
She stared at the water. “It seemed like that.”
The moon began to rise, and the sand turned blue. Little crabs scuttled away from the waves. Death had remembered many things in four days: that he had once stood on the land where Paris now sprawled like a ageing and ageless madam, and he had been the one to dig until he found a place to hide things. It had never been a place meant for souls, however. And he had once won an entire hillock of mirror shards in an epic card game; he’d told the Expiry to send them all to heaven, knowing that there were a fair amount of scoundrels and thieves and salesmen in the lot. The trouble those souls got up to on the other side of the Gates had often brought him mirth.
He remembered that, once, he and War had been friends. His heart ached at the memories.
He remembered another thing, too. And as the moon caressed his bones – for the moon loves Death more than any other thing on earth – he pushed his cowl back and let its adoration fill in his bones, giving flesh to the empty spaces.
And then he kissed Moira.
But he had forgotten one thing, and Moira reminded him as she pushed him back in the sands and slipped a leg over so that she was astride him. All that long night on the beach, she reminded him of a great many things he had forgotten, and some that he only pretended to have forgotten. And when the moon, tired of watching over the two lovers, began to drift out of sight, she walked naked into the sea and came out dripping with pearls. He slipped one into his pocket, and they parted.
For once, Death did not mind getting back to work. In fact, he whistled for the next week. And when the Friday night card game came around, he stepped into the room ready to play.
The Devil tilted his head. Death sat across and grinned. The game began again.
Thank you to everyone who read and supported me during this endeavor. I admit that it was almost impossible to finish, as I didn't want to let Death go. And in that spirit, I give you an installment that was originally part six, but I realized it didn't fit and so I cut it. When God is speaking of Death causing the demise of non-human mortal creatures, he refers to this:
A roadside zoo in Arkansas. Death leaned on the peanut-dispensing machine: a quarter for a handful. Alone in a small, cement-floored cage, a chimpanzee, gray around the eyes. Its sign said Mr. Higgy, born 1953. Its eyes held the bleakness of incarceration, the sorrow of loneliness, the pain of untended old age. The young girl for whom Death’s attendance was necessary, about to gran mal seizure her way into the afterlife, had stared at the chimp, her parents leaning on the railing, bored, flicking peanuts to the ratty peacocks. Mr. Higgy put a finger through the bars. She reached to touch him, and her father grabbed her hand. Chimps were dangerous. And dirty. Mr. Higgy lowered his hand and looked at the sky instead.
Mr. Higgy was not on his tape, of course. But no one noticed, as they crowded around the seizing girl and shouted about wallets and spoons and ambulances that wouldn’t arrive in time, the shadow slip between the bars and lay a hand on Mr. Higgy. Death felt nothing to pluck, but in a great, forgiving sigh, Mr. Higgy laid his big head on the cement floor and died too.
And so it began.
A gypsy’s decrepit terrier dog outside of Bursa, the old woman babbling her dog’s name to her last breath. The ancient donkey carrying the fat American tourist up the hill in Greece in the middle of a hot August day. The cat in the closet of the boy’s room, its failing meows hardly louder than the breeze through Death’s oak tree each evening.
The black bear laid low by a gun shot, the hunter dead in the woods of a heart attack and unable to finish the job. Death had stepped in.
It was probably against the rules, he thought every time. And then, he would put his hand just there and give the creature a long stroke.
“Mr. Higgy,” he said at last. It had all been worth it, no matter what punishment they chose to deal out.
Death is sometimes lazy, but always kind. Again, thanks for reading. I can't express my appreciation enough. If you feel especially moved to promote this elsewhere, I'd be much obliged. In the meantime, I'm going to see if any fantasy mag's will take this as a reprint. If there is anyone who has thoughts on the story that they think might make it better, feel free to email me at gshep72 @ sbcglobal dot net. I'd love a second pair of eyes to go over this. (please put Death in the subject line, or something similar, so I don't delete it)
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Tomorrow, this blog returns to normal service.
Links to previous installments:
These are all links to my DeviantArt page, because the blog links are a hot mess. I'll sort it out another time. Thanks, again.