*Characters and events belong to Joel7th
The Emperor, the Silver Needle and the Grim Reaper’s Heart
I dream in my dream all the dreams of the other dreamers,
And I become the other dreamers.
—Walt Whitman, “THE SLEEPERS”
His stories I never asked for but Death gave them anyway. He told me about the lives he had encountered (and deemed worth remembering). He told me about the various places I had never heard of, let alone visited, about the magnificent wonders of both nature’s and humans’ hands. Bedtime treats he sometimes called them, sometimes gifts, since he “felt bad” for going to someone’s house empty-handed. Other times, he called them tributes to the “sulky” little host that had generously allowed him a spot to stay for the freezing, lonely night. Whatever they were, to my pleasant surprise, they lulled me to peaceful, dreamless sleep despite all the aches and bruises littering along my body.
Regular as a clockwork, my daily routine – running errands by day and pleasing the lords by night, then hobbling home with feet sore and bodies sorer, to be greeted by the sight of a stranger-maybe. With so much as a wave of his hand, Death gave me the small luxury of hot water in the middle of the night. Then he would watch me rid myself off the aristocratic filths clinging to my motley skin, pale, silent eyes roaming back and forth between the smoke-veiled space and its sole owner. Then he would tuck me in and, if I still hadn’t found sleep, he would find a chance for his one-man show. At the end of the night, he would always kissed me goodnight before taking his much-procrastinated leave. It wasn’t long before I began to take his kiss for granted; he gave it for free and I took it freely, as if it was the most conventional thing in the world.
Yet, that “most conventional thing in the world” had never occurred to Mommy Dearest, who had not, and would never have a sliver of knowledge that Death himself was under her roof night after night. Many a time I had entertained the idea of telling her, and pondered her reaction if she were to know. Would she think me mad? Would she freak out? Would she merely cover her mouth for a yawn, pull out her flask, find it long dry and send me to fetch her more? Still, like every good, docile child, I only conjured the notion, never putting it to action. I wouldn’t want Mother to lose her mind, no matter how alcohol-addled it was, would I?
Of course, my entertained thought never slipped past Death’s radar. He’d heard it several times and each time, he just shook his head and spoke the same thing over: “Divinity is not meant for mortals, for its sheer weight will squash them to comprehend it. We cloak ourselves and cover your ears for your own sake.”
What about me? I asked, out of logical thinking. Has I not already been squashed, having exposed to divinity by the careless Grim Reaper who couldn’t care less about another mortal losing their mind?
“Wow,” exclaimed Death. “But you are different though, child. I wasn’t thoughtless when I revealed myself to you. I had known beforehand that you would take it with unique nonchalance, without losing your mind like most other mortals.”
What makes me different? Care to share?
“You’ll know. In time.”
He said it with a wink and a smile softer than cotton candy. I hadn’t a taste of cotton candy for years and wished for it with all my little heart.
Then he kissed me.
Death’s lips were pleasant and gentle in their touch, vastly unlike those who had touched me before, touched me now and would continue to touch me in the future. As long as Mother lived.
How would his lips feel on my own, the thought strayed into my mind at some point. Quickly it vaporized like the smoke from Death’s fags.
Why are you always here when the clock strikes midnight?
“Because I am…” Death said, shrugging, “…deadly puncture.”
A screen of scented smoke obscured his wide grin.
You know that isn’t the point.
“Pray tell, what is the point?”
I tried my sternest look and that might work on him since Death’s grin was reduced to a baffled smile and he held up his hands in defeat.
“Because I fancy you very much.” Death looked me in the eyes, his pale irises giving hint of faint red light. “Does that answer your question?”
No. I was tempted to project but the way he said it so silkily halted me. On one hand he made it sound as if there was nothing bizarre about a godly entity taking a liking to a mere mortal. Yet on the other, it was strange, so very strange.
Still he spoke of it, of fondness and perhaps affection, so bluntly, so honestly.
I felt a needle’s prick under my cold skin.
“You must think me one of those depraved souls?”
Like the first time he’d raised such question, I didn’t disagree; at the same time, I didn’t quite agree either.
Death had touched me, true, but so far he’d only been touching me with his lips, chastely at best, while others had ravaged me with most parts of their body.
Most parts except their lips.
No, I conveyed to him. As a matter of fact, I can’t tell whether you have a soul. Do you?
“Well, isn’t it a very human concept, ‘soul’? You came up with a name for the incomprehensible what-ever that moved your body, directed your actions and formed your thoughts and such.”
So do divine entities have that incomprehensible what-ever that moves their bodies, directs their actions and forms their thoughts?
“I suppose they do.”
Death smiled and took a lungful of his fag. By this time I’d gotten too familiar with the narcotic scent in the air that I would question if one morning I woke up not smelling it.
Although I thought I knew the brand, I never quite figured it out.
Silence stretched between us as Death was consuming his nicotine while I was sitting unmoving on my bed.
Death took me by surprise when out of the blue he pushed me down the mattress. The act wasn’t violent and before I could form a speculation of his next, Death pulled the cover up to my chest and tucked me neatly in.
Death had a natural talent for babysitting. I gave him that.
“Time for children to go to sleep.”
When he bent down to give me his goodnight kiss like usual, I startled myself by reaching out to tug his cuff.
Death shot me a half-surprised, half-amused look, stopping in his track.
No bedtime story? I thought you promised me.
An elegant eyebrow arched comically and Death grinned.
“Almost forgot. You must pardon my senility.”
Death sat down the edge and his thigh came in contact with my shoulder. Warmth seeped through the costly fabric into my veins. I wanted to bathe in it. I wanted to bathe in Death.
Till I drowned in him.
I had learned the trick to keep the thoughts to myself and not projecting it when I wished to share.
“At the beginning of mankind, there was an empire,”’ with his liquid voice laced with a hint of semi-lisp, Death began. “The empire stretched from East to West, from North to South, from heaven to ground. The world at that time was only one nation, and ruling that nation was an emperor. The emperor, actually. Divine Emperor his subjects called him, and they worshipped him like mortals did a true god. It wasn’t long before the Emperor began to think himself as the only God of the universe…’
And the gods punished him?
Because Greek gods and Christian God certainly would. I’d thoroughly devoured the dog-eared, yellow-paged story books of Janek at the age of five. Janek had taught me to read. He’d been a kind, patient teacher… Drunk, most of the times, yet still kind and patient. I supposed kindness and patience were luxuries in a drunkard. Had seen many of them to reach this conclusion.
“First time I’ve heard you during the story.”
It surprised me too, as usually I just listened to his soothing voice and got lulled to sleep without making any comments. Wasn’t that the purpose of bedtime stories?
“No, my little one. There was no god and there never will be.”
What are you then?
“Have I ever claimed that I am a god? I am Death and that’s just it.”
You spoke of yourself as ‘divine entity’.
“A divine entity is not a god. There’s a difference.”
What’s the difference?
“As far as I’m concerned my one hell of a boss is considered divine, but he’s no god. Say he is and you’ll never see the light of day again.”
He got a point. I shut up.
“I do appreciate when you join me in my stories though,” Death grinned. “Where were we? Ah, the emperor… Gods never punished him – there was none. But prosperous as it was, his reign didn’t last long. Soon the Divine Emperor found himself devastatingly close to death.”
There was a strange slip in his tone when Death referred to himself as “Death”. I noticed but did not voice my thought.
“The Divine Emperor wished not to die – who with something to lose would, really? He still had an endless empires to rule and unlimited pleasures to indulge. And he was still young. Too young.”
I could almost relate to the Emperor. Almost. If I’d had his possessions, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so welcome to Death’s presence in our first encounter.
“A wise one told him there was hope of averting death, gaining immortality even…”
Long, lean fingers with faint water scent massaged my scalp when I lifted my head slightly in unconscious curiosity.
“It was said that putting a silver needle under the pillow would dismiss Death’s spell. And…”
As if to demonstrate, tendrils of smoke curled around lean fingers in a four-inch needle-shape.
“And when Death claimed its victim soul with a kiss, the Emperor could stab the needle in its heart.”
Strange was his usage of possessive adjective.
And that’d kill Death? I asked.
Death nodded calmly; in his right hand appeared a realistic-looking smoke heart, which was soon pierced through by the smoke needle in his left.
Can Death die?
“Of course. Nothing is truly immortal. Not a god, remember?”
Such knowledge is kind of disappointed.
And Death smiled but for once, the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Death saw through the Emperor’s intention. How foolish he was,” Death’s tone took a turn in mockery, “for no human’s thought was secret to Death.”
My heart skipped a beat. For once I was grateful that I was mute, otherwise I would stammer.
Did he, no, did the Emperor succeed? The question was stupid; I asked anyway.
The smoke heart and needle dissolved in his palms and his fingers seized my chin, more gently than needed, so that I saw my own reflection in wine-colored irises.
His irises were blazing.
His lips moved and his voice was close to a purr.
“I am here.”
The stark contrast of the solemnity in his gaze and the sensuality in his voice had me entranced and I didn’t realize I was staring until Death grinned and the air of mystique around him dispersed.
That’s it? I managed to find my thought.
“That’s it,” Death shrugged. “I don’t tell fiction, only truth. And truth sometimes is terribly short and bland.”
That I agreed.
And truth is, I’m not feeling sleepy.
Death grinned and lowered his head to give me his goodnight kiss.
“After this kiss, you will, I promise.”
I didn’t protest. Soon as his last syllable faded out, my eyelids felt stony.
That night, a dream, after a long time of absence, visited me.
I dreamed about an empire that stretched from East to West, from North to South, and from heaven to ground. I dreamed about an emperor whose subjects worshiped as the only God of the universe, whose age too young and power too vast. I dreamed about his impending demise, and his despair and vain struggle to fight it.
Strangely enough, the Divine Emperor’s countenance was dissonantly similar to Death’s. Was there some displacement here?
I dreamed about a hooded figure with a single raven wing. The feathers were smooth and glistened as if they were dipped in oil; so beautiful it had to be alone. Though the face was concealed, I had an immense feeling I knew what was hidden in the shadow of the hood, only the memory was too vague to draw a link to an identity.
I dreamed about the raven wing being ripped from the back, its shiny feathers scattering like black snow. The hooded figure mutilated themselves, there was no doubt.
Lastly, I dreamed about a silver needle and a bleeding heart.
Red bled out like a blooming Manjusaka and drown my dream before I could get to the end.
I never told Death about my peculiar dream.
(To Be Continue)