*Characters and events belong to Joel7th
The Groaning Bed, Cigarette Butts and Death
I have no friends. And if I did indeed have one, I would not consider him a “friend”. Friendship is a luxury I cannot afford.
Like me, he does not have a name, and so, “Death” is how I call him.
He never discloses his true name to me. Never speaks of it once. Perhaps he’s not allowed to. Perhaps he has forgotten. Perhaps he doesn’t have one to begin with.
The name I take the liberty of giving him is not inappropriate. Death is what he does. Death is what he is.
And death is the only gift he brings to a human when he stands at their doorstep uninvited.
Death looks nothing like the ghastly image humankind has conjured up since they were conscious of “death”: pit-black robe spanning like the endless night in stark contrast with bone-white, inanimate face that seems only skin and skull. Black and white aren’t his permanent colors, though occasionally he wears either, when he is “in the mood” as he puts it. When he is not, he simply puts on other shades, mostly grim but I have a feeling it is his personal preference rather than an obligation.
As black and white are already a fallacious association, so is scythe as his main choice of weapon. It isn’t. In fact, the only object he seems to carry is his beloved Sterling silver zippo that I have never seen him without. That, and his seemingly unlimited supply of fags. The heaviest smoker I have the non-pleasure to meet. Why bother, he once replied to my curious query while casually dragging out a long, tortuous trail of smoke from his thin lips. For the style, perhaps, I answered. I knew I would have one if I were Death. Carry it around like a proud treasure. He snickered, mocking the idea as he does now and then with every mortal assumption he finds amusing. Why bother carrying a cumbersome weapon, he repeated, while he has no intention to go on a battlefield. If death was war, he would be the all-time victor, no argument.
So, scythe is a no, then what does he reap souls with, you ask. Contrary to common belief, he never does. The very thought of cutting a soul from its flesh nauseates him to no end. Gives him goosebumps, he remarked with disdain. It still baffles him how humans have managed to invent such scurrilous notion of something as beautiful and elegant as death. His business is not that of a gardener but rather of a guide, and he would like to handle it with as much grace and dignity as it certainly deserves.
Sadly, not many a man face death with the same grace and dignity, I told him. Often they tremble, piss themselves or wail like a baby. Sometimes all. He shook his head ruefully in agreement.
I found that gesture almost too human.
Anyway, if you have a rich imagination of how “deadly” and macabre Death should appear, once you meet the actual Death – sooner or later – you will be thoroughly disappointed.
As I were in our first encounter.
When I turned the doorknob and stepped inside the shadows of my attic room, he was the first thing I saw with the light from my candle.
“Huh? You are not afraid of me?”
Death’s voice straddled the line between a purr and a whisper, with a hint of semi-lisp. His accent was exotic and dripped with seduction; I found it more amusing than offending.
I shook my head.
Shake again. And Death smiled.
Another wrong assumption humans have about Death is that Death constantly wears a stoic, grim and dead-like expression on his bony face. Neither is Death’s face bony nor are his facial expressions anywhere close to their imagination. As if flashing his perfect gleaming white teeth will somehow lessens his deadly presence – if he has any, Death smiles a great deal. He even grins, more often than proper.
Oh, did I forget to mention “proper” never exists in his dictionary, whatever the connotations?
“How utterly failed I am!” exclaimed Death rather dramatically, one hand clutching his chest in mock pain.
Was he having a heart there? If yes, would he feel pain when it got pricked ?
“Not even scare a little child!”
I wasn’t afraid of death, truth be told. I wasn’t afraid when I crouched into the narrow attic I called my bedroom to find, on my rusty bed, a perfect stranger sitting cross-legged. With a fag I knew cost more than Mother’s weekly income tucked between his lips, he flashed me a smile many others would describe as “predatory”. Who he was and how he had gotten in here was a mystery; what he wanted in this flat that was just a little better than the slums down the street, god knew! The worst scenario was he would kill me, a defenseless child, and dump the body down the gutter. Or he would rape me and do the same. Didn’t matter. No one would bat an eye at the sight of ravenous mongrels gnawing the putrefying remains of some nameless corpse. Deaths in such manner happened every day in this godforsaken part of the town, why should I be afraid of becoming yet another victim?
“Because, you know, witnessing others’ death is not the same at being in its presence yourself,” he elucidated. “It is so far human’s greatest fear. Unrivaled.”
Suddenly I heard his voice while his lips remained tight. No, it wasn’t ventriloquism. Janek downstairs used to be a ventriloquist (now a stinking drunkard that neglected his rent on regular basis) and from him I had learned that even the best ventriloquist could not produce such clarity and effect this voice had. It was as if he wasn’t merely speaking to me but rather punching each syllable on the surface of my brain.
I let out a sigh, finding a little comfort in the fact that he was not a lunatic loafer trying to mess with a child.
Not every human’s, I conveyed my thought to him, finding it far more convenient than reaching for my wad of paper and pen. My sign language wasn’t developed enough to catch up with my thinking – one huge disadvantage.
“Well, true, I’ve seen a few myself. But I haven’t imagined a little child that doesn’t show the slightest fear looking at my face.”
I’m not a little child. The words blurted out before I realized it was plain childish to say so. And neither was his face any “scary” as he boasted.
“Pardon me?” Death looked me up and down. “You look every bit like one.”
Just the look. Then I unlocked a drawer in my mind and showed him. Pushed away to a far corner in hope it would disappear, my memory, up until now, of burly men pressing me down Mother’s bed, breathing their foul breath into my mouth, taking me, tearing me for their sadistic pleasure. Of aged men forcing me on my knees and thrusting their no longer potent lust down my throat, making me swallow their filth like it was a great delicacy. Of young gentlemen binding my limbs and flagellating me while moaning the name of God.
Some of Mother’s clients had a taste for children. And a child who could not utter a word seemed to turn them on like no other.
Not a child. The first time one of them had touched me, the child had been cannibalized, leaving an empty shell to be paid for and used over and over.
Well, we all have to work our ass off to feed our stomach, Mother’s words. She had shrugged the matter off when I came crying to her and gone for another shot of bourbon.
I hid nothing from Death, no mortification. This body was no longer my own.
Death sat on my bed, still like the timeless stone gargoyle in front of the chapel. Even his countenance looked stony, inanimate; gone was the easygoing smile that had been there mere seconds ago. At this moment he was really dead-like.
Death’s eyes were pale, unlike his hair and his suit. In the room lit only by the ominous moonlight and one feeble candle, I hadn’t been able to determine their true color. Yet I was now. It would be hard not to, considering how Death’s eyes were shining with brilliant light.
I remembered one odd occasion when Mother had taken me to an event held and joined only by the aristocrats – those she often told me to stay far away from. She was dressed in her most beautiful pearl-white gown, her face powdered, her lips rogue, her golden hair meticulously done and she was wearing every bit of jewelry she possessed. She had even dabbed some perfume – not the cheap kind that cost a penny she usually wore but the tiny vial from France she treasured more than her life; once I had tried to lift it from its altar and she had punished me dearly.
“There,” she whispered, hot breath tickling my ear, “that is your father. Can you see him?”
She pointed a long, bony finger at a man in fancy frock coat and silk cravat standing on the stage, and her tone was dripping honey, something I couldn’t remember hearing for years and years. “See how handsome he is! How rich is his voice! He told me he loved me with that voice! See how strong his arms are! He held me with those arms!” She was crooning. Not wanting to disappoint or enrage her, I nodded despite seeing him but not truly seeing him. He was too far and the best I could make out were his outfit and the vague features of his face. Hawk nose, I recalled, a tall, shining forehead and a crown of silvery strands – those were all I could use to describe my own father despite having been staring at him for God-know how long. Mother’s honey had turned to venoms; she was hissing into my ears with a vehement hatred I was not a complete stranger to. Her manicured fingernails dug into my skin, forming painful crescent imprints that I did not feel until much later as she was dragging me to the entrance.
“You see him now! But he doesn’t see you. Never! Never! Never! He doesn’t know you exist. A bastard swimming in a shithole! A worthless child from a belly of a whore!”
I barely heard her, too captivated by the sight of the crystal glass held in his gloved hand. The smooth liquid in its bowel was shining with brilliant red light.
Just like Death’s eyes.
“You must think I’m one of those depraved souls?”
I didn’t need to answer. Death didn’t need to hear.
His expensive fag fell to the floor and was crushed underneath his sole. Death took another out of thin air, tucked it between his lips and lit it with his Sterling silver zippo.
Why was he using a zippo when obviously he didn’t need one? An imitation, perhaps?
As the fag lit up, smoke dulled the light in Death’s eyes until his irises returned to their pale, indistinguishable color.
I sighed inwardly. At least I had gotten to see it. A color so ravishing. A color so… alive.
You can take me.
Even with the fag tucked between his lips, Death still managed to show a formidable portion of teeth when he grinned at me and reached out a hand with lean fingers to muss up my hair.
I flinched but didn’t try to brush his hand away. Briefly I caught a scent from his fingers, faint and clear as water. I found it more preferable than any kinds of eau de parfum.
Yet I had thought Death would smell deadlier, more like fresh blood.
“Not yet, child. Not today. Your day is yet too far.”
I must have stared at him in some way he dubbed “dumb” or even “stupid”, because all of sudden Death burst out laughing. Whatever left of the stoic, solemn air he had managed to put on in the previous moment was shattered pathetically with his outrageous laughter. He even leaked some mirthful tears from his eyes.
“No need to thank me, child. But if you really have to, I won’t mind a hug.”
Death extended his arms as if expected me to launch myself at him in any minute.
I evaded him and climbed on my bed. The bed creaked with my weight – my too-old pal – but it had been silent with Death the whole time.
If you’re not going to take me then stop occupying my bed. I want to sleep. Tomorrow will be a long day. With that I blew off the candle, leaving the moon the only source of light.
His eyebrows drew together. “Not going to embrace me in sheer happiness?”
I made a derisive sound and squeezed myself into the tiny space left of my bed, trying to make myself comfortable with what I was having.
Death moved subtly to the edge until he was almost perching on it. To my surprise, the rusty frame had groaned with my movement but was quiet with Death’s. I might start thinking his body was not corporal.
In mere coincidence, my shoulder brushed his thigh, and I was mildly fascinated by the warmth beside the smooth texture of the fabric. Death felt like human, more pleasant even.
Death either heard my thought or spotted the tiny smile I did not know I’d been having until I saw the hint of mischief in his own.
“A bedtime story, perhaps?”
Pulling the cover up to my chest, I squeezed my eyes shut.
“A goodnight kiss?”
I might have heard a small chuckle before I felt the weight on the bed shifted and vanished. The bed did not make a sound. I was half tempted to open my eyes when a warm, soft sensation brushed the skin on my forehead. It lingered even after the clear scent of water had melted away in the night air. Only by then was I certain I was alone in my room. Only by then was I finally able to drift off to sleep.
I had had my dreamless sleep for years and woke up the next morning to find the wooden floor free of cigarette butts.
Nothing except my memory indicated Death’s presence in this narrow attic the previous night. That might as well be another warped dream of my unlimited stock. What was my unconscious mind trying to tell me this time by introducing a figure such as Death?
Nevertheless, I hoped against hope that he would return.
(To Be Continue)