*Characters and events belong to Joel7th
Kiss of a Murderer’s Lips
Stay awake with me
You know I can’t just let you be
—London Grammar, “STAY AWAKE”
On hindsight, that was one of the better times in my life. The reason was only one:
The winter came earlier, stayed longer and was more unforgiving, and thus the mortality rate reached the summit in the past twenty years. Whenever I looked outside the tiny hole serving as my window, I got a glimpse of hell.
The sky was a dusty grey even though it was mid noon, and the feeble rays leaking through the coagulated clouds did no more than glistening the bloating corpses wheeled through the town’s cobbled roads, normally quite bustling but now mostly deserted by the sights of the living, save a rat now and then scurrying out of the gutters to salvage any modicum of food. Days were the same as nights, both blanketed in a shroud of despair. The putrefying stench waffled in the thick, heavy air, and pervaded every nook and canny, accompanied by swamps of hungry flies. Doors were closed, even barred, and windows shut tight. When the night came, the cold pale moon shone down the icicles clinging to every roof as though they were snickering to themselves at how low this town and its people had sunk.
So, I was happy. So happy that I could sit on the broken stool by the window, the only one open in the whole street, for hours, paying no mind to my grumbling stomach. Meals were reduced to just one per day, sometimes none. No work meant shrinking outcome, and shrinking outcome meant fewer meals. But I supposed hunger was the least of the problems we had to face. After all, humans could go for days without food.
These days I wasn’t summoned to any man’s house, and that made perfect sense. Since death was rampaging outside every door (no pun intended), claiming lives with every second passed, no one wished to bring a filthy brat into their dwelling; the risk was simply too dear for something as ephemeral as pleasure. Thanks to that, the injuries on my body had all the time to heal. The pain had faded into itches and tinges, and even the latest wound had scabbed.
So, I was happy…
… Just kidding.
Not having to serve Mother’s clients was not what sent me to clouds nine, really it was not. I had so gotten used to their antics that whatever they brought to the table no longer fazed me. Well, unless they were to murder me, perhaps I would be mildly surprised, but that was it. This wasn’t the first time I had imagined my own death at the hands of Mother’s clients; it wasn’t beyond them, I knew, the killing of a lowlife – they might not even consider it killing, more like stepping on an ant or squashing a bug. The only thing keeping my body and limbs intact had been a quaint interest in a dumb, malnourished kid whose body responded too well to their limited tricks.
So, no, the reason for my upbeat mood was just outside my window, stacked in fly-buzzing piles, waiting to be carted away. Because, somehow, witnessing the unfortunate outcome of others seemed to fill my hollow vessel a sublime if not very lasting joy.
Like pumping fresh blood into a vampire. It would keep him juicy for a while until the time came for his next meal.
In short, I was happy, and I would have been in even more jovial mood if it was not for Death.
Death must be very busy, I assumed. He might not have time for bedtime stories and goodnight kisses.
The thought twisted my inside like never before.
I was wrong though, and much happy about it, albeit silently. In front of Death, I always acted like I was aware of his presence as much as I was the old drawer and rusty bed. I might have forgotten that no thought was secret to Death, and he could well be laughing at my foolishness.
At my question about his recently increasing workload, Death crossed his gracefully long legs, laughed and let out a puff of smoke. The smoke lingered long enough for me to see myriads phantasms of Death, all looking the same. Impeccable suit but for a tiny deviance: the top button undone, jet-black hair roughly combed back, exposing unwrinkled forehead, silver ring embossed with quirky characters adorned his forefinger, and the wide-cut mouth always so eager to flash his pearly white teeth. When the smoke vanished, I saw only one – the original.
Death grinned again and I understood. Death was everywhere. As he was sitting on my old bed and smoking his brandless fag, he was present at thousands, millions other places, never neglecting his duty.
As he was with me here, he was also with Mother downstairs.
Mother had been suffering for the last two weeks. It first started with a fever – it always did – and then came the chills, the wheezing fits, the bloating of stomach and the gnawing aches in joints. And to top them all, the muscle spasms that made her body contort like a circus’s performer. When she dismissed her most generous client, I knew her ailment was serious; she would never deny a chance to grasp a few more silvers, unless her condition forbade her. Soon she began to confide herself in her room, covering her body with every bit of rags she could get her hands on, panting and groaning softly as she did. I did what I could to aid her, but nothing seemed to lessen her pain. The soaked cloth did little to soothe her fever, and the cheap painkillers I dug out of the bottom of the drawer only dulled her mind, not her agony. One week after her contraction, she was reduced to a quivering mess of yellow sagged skin and bones, whose drooling mouth sputtered gibberish as she clawed at my arms with the desperate strength of a dying animal, leaving long jagged slashes when the sleeping pills were not knocking her out cold. Her eyes rolled back in her head and the whites were bloodshot. She might be looking at me but I knew she saw not a thing. My cruel yet beautiful mother, gone; what was this ugly and clammy creature? In order to have any hope of survival, she needed medicine, real medicine that I couldn’t buy even if I was to take a client every two hours. And for her to fully recover, it would require a miracle the like of which only Jesus could bring. Pray, child, the old and blind woman next door told me, putting her gray, spotted hand on my arm. It took every ounce of my will not to recoil at the touch. Pray with all your heart and soul, and maybe He will hear you. Nay, He hears you. You just have to show Him your earnestness. Then, will He make her feel better? Will He cure her? I wrote on a scrap of paper, looking up at her wrinkled face. Her milky eyes stared blankly at the spot behind my head. She smiled a toothless smile, and came her reply. At least He will grant her peace.
I doubt that, I thought. If God did exist, he would have likely averted his Godly eyes from this rat-infested hole.
Death had told me he was going to take Mother; he even went out of his way to elaborate the concept of death to me, as though I didn’t knew Death personally. I remained calm and serene the whole time.
I was aware that I didn’t even feel a sliver of loss and sadness. Rather, my whole being was overflowed with relief.
A relief for both herself and me.
“She’ll depart at 3 and 14 minutes 2 seconds,” Death said in even tone. “The cause is poison.”
Oh. Must have been one of her client. Some of them are real sick.
Death crossed his arms, his beautiful and sharp eyes drilling into my face. Did he see through the clumsy lies? He must have. After all, nothing is hidden in front of Death, as they often say.
“You aren’t sad?” he asked.
“Not even a little?”
Should I go ahead and flat-out deny? I thought.
I guessed one of the reasons I felt most comfortable in Death’s company was because he witnessed so much and judged so little.
Not that I was afraid of judgment, though.
“Still want a bedtime story tonight?”
I shook my head.
“Perhaps a lullaby?”
I arched one eyebrow at the odd suggestion, considered it for a second, and finally nodded.
Death bent down, bringing his lips near my ear but didn’t quite touch the shell. Then he sang, sweetly and beautifully, in a language unknown to me, and perhaps unknown to humans.
The melody was exotic water, deep and inviting and sinking me down to the very bottom. I closed my eyes, eager to accept my fate.
Even years later, whenever I have trouble falling asleep in the middle of the night, I always imagine myself sinking deeper and deeper into a bottomless body of water, until darkness completely surrounds me. It works every time.
When the song was over, Death stood straight up and intended to walk away, first time leaving me without a goodnight kiss. My eyes shot open, I reached out and caught him by his forearm.
I could feel the warmth beneath layers of fabric.
What about my goodnight kiss? I asked.
“These,” he said, touching his lips, “are going to kiss a poisoned woman’s lips to rob her of her soul. So, not tonight, unless you wish otherwise.”
Not tonight, I echoed. Something in me snapped, and I sat up, quicker than Death thought I could, and pressed my lips to the corner of his mouth.
This was the first time I’d ever kissed someone on my own volition, and even so, ‘someone’ was definitely a stretch. Death’s lips was cool, unlike the human warmth beneath the fabric.
“What is it?” Death seemed unfazed, which troubled me. What did I expect?
You can kiss me goodnight, but I can’t do the same to you?
“I never say that,” he replied. “But I am used to giving kisses rather than receiving them.”
Is it your first?
“Not my first.” He smiled.
Where’ll she go?
Mother certainly couldn’t make it to heaven. What awaited her was only hell.
“To recycling” was his reply.
I didn’t know why I asked.
“Then rebirth. Endless recycling.”
So, no Hell?
I nodded and let go off his arm as he placed a hand over my eyes. Shadows descended and sleep became heavy boulders on my eyelids. Before shutting them, I assured my anxious self that even without Death’s goodnight kiss, I wouldn’t be troubled with nightmares.
With my eyes closed and my mind starting to drift, I could tell exactly when Death vanished from my room.
I was wrong about nightmares, though.
That night, I dreamed about Mother. At first, it was just darkness, familiar darkness that seemed to be the default opening of my every dream. Then I heard her shrieking voice from afar. Weak but loud enough to be recognizable. She was yelling, maybe even cursing. I followed her voice, and it got louder as I came closer to… something. I don’t know. Then I saw it. I saw Mother’s malnourished body, or half of it, as the other half from her waist down was already digested by a wide mouth with yellow teeth the size of my entire arm, leaving behind a small pool of viscous liquid. It was eating her, inch by inch, despite her vain effort to fight back, clawing at the ground till her nails fell out. A fighter until her last breath she was. She saw me, and her eyes lit up. “Baby!” she wailed, stretching her arms. “Help me, please! It hurts!” I stood still, with my arms relaxed by my side. She called out to me again, her tears mixing with blood on her saggy skin. I forced myself to watch – I owed it to her as much – although my inside was churning like there was a miniature mouth in my stomach.
No Hell didn’t mean no pain.
(To Be Continued)