It was a place where the promise of death lingered in every shadow, in every breeze. Where, at any moment, the grass that grew thick might lash around your wrists and drag you beneath the earth to rot. Where the surrounding trees might tear up their roots and strangle you with wooden limbs, if the mood struck. A frightful stillness consumed the glade, for the noises of the city did not reach it, and animals avoided the place as surely as humans. The very air seemed to hum its displeasure when travelers mistakenly wandered into its midst.
In the middle of the clearing stood a stone sculpture: The tip of a boat rising up out of the earth, as though emerging from the pits of Hell, its occupant a gargantuan man who did not belong in so small a craft. Like his boat, the sculpted creature was stuck halfway in the ground. He appeared somewhere between man and skeleton, with face fleshed out but body emaciated. There looked to be no meat on his bones, only a thin layer of skin stretched over them. His face was forever contorted in an expression of agony, and one arm stretched outwards, as though seeking rescue from his trapped vessel.
Such a thing had no right existing in the modern world, the city folk thought, where automobiles chugged down the road and almost every household had a radio. It belonged in another time, another century, one of magic and superstition. This sense of otherworld kept all people out of the eerie glade.
Save for one child, a girl, her orange hair always kept tucked underneath the hood of her cape. For many years she had been the statue’s only visitor. Some days she came and stood silently, staring at the frozen face for hours before leaving. Some days she took naps in the long grass and pretended she were as stuck in time as he. Some days she spoke to the skeletal man, in quiet murmurs that even the grass could not hear. If they could, they would have heard her say,
100 years earlier…
“Sleep, my love, and peace attend thee all through the night,” the woman sang, brushing delicate fingers through her daughter’s hair. “Guardian angels God will lend thee, all through the night. Soft the drowsy hours are creeping; hill and vale in slumber steeping.” She closed her eyes. “I my loving vigil keeping. All through the night.”
Quiet breaths assured that the girl was fast asleep. Her mother smiled and kissed her brow.
“Now will you come to bed?”
She looked up at the man in the doorway, who watched her with worry. “No,” she said. “I believe I’ll stay here tonight.”
Her husband nodded slowly. Then tears gathered in his eyes. He dropped his head, his shoulders bouncing with each sob. A hand shielded his face from view, but his wet, ragged gasps were easily heard in the hushed night.
“Don’t cry, my love,” she entreated him.
When he had collected himself enough to speak, the man said, “Are you certain it will be tonight?”
“How can you be sure? If you would only hold on one more—”
“Day? Week?” she said gently.
He bit his trembling lip and turned away.
“Then a month, and a year? For all that I love you, my darling, that is a battle I cannot fight. Not even for you.”
“She needs her mother,” he whispered.
“You must take care of her in my stead.”
“What if she… What if she forgets you?”
“If you keep me alive in your heart, she will remember me.”
The Reaper watched from a corner of the small, unfurnished room. The man had retreated to the dwelling’s other bedroom, and now the woman and her daughter slept side by side. Soon the mother’s sleep would become permanent. That is when the Reaper, still shrouded in invisibility, would bear her away to another world, piloting the boat to carry her soul across the swamps of Purgatory and into the Afterlife.
The slowing beat of her heart sounded clear as a bell in his ears. He counted the gongs as they grew farther apart, waiting, waiting, until they had faded away completely. He approached the bed.
The little girl opened her eyes. He stopped. He knew she could not see him, but something in children had always affected him deeply. He felt unable to move again before witnessing her grief, if indeed she understood what had happened. Many children did not. Would she wail? Would she scream? Would she stare in puzzlement and ask what game her mother was playing?
The girl stared into the face inches from her own. “Mama?”
There was no answer. She repeated the call. Still receiving no reply, a certain calmness embraced the child. She reached forward and brushed a hand over the top of her mother’s head, petting the stringy brown hairs. Then she did something that the Reaper considered quite peculiar.
“Angels watching ever round thee, all through the night,” she sang. “In thy slumbers close surround thee, all through the night. They should of all fears disarm thee; no forebodings should alarm thee. They will let no peril harm thee, all through the night.” She took her mother’s hand and pressed their foreheads together.
It was several minutes before the Reaper stirred again, remembering that he had a job to do that did not involve keeping watch over young babes. But something about her captivated him and piqued his curiosity. He sensed her sorrow in the air, though she did not openly express it. His heart splintered for her.
(Why yes, Reapers did have hearts. Though his was perhaps more sensitive than most. Often did his fellow Reapers mock him for his softness, particularly when it came to the human children. He wished he did not feel things this way, truly. It was a burden he little cared for, and yet it was his to bear.)
That is why, before he knew what he was doing, the Reaper lowered the hood of his long dark cloak, lifting the enchantment of invisibility.
The girl’s eyes fixed upon him and grew big. She sprang up, sitting stiff as a board. He immediately regretted his impulse. Surely now she would scream. Her mother’s death may have failed to frighten her, but his monstrous visage would not.
For the second time that evening, she surprised him. She quickly relaxed, a thoughtful light glowing in her eyes. She did not seem afraid of him despite his great size and ghastly appearance.
“Hello,” she said.
Still reeling from what he had foolishly done, revealing himself to a human for Lilith’s sake, he merely inclined his gigantic head.
“There isn’t room on the bed, but you can sit on the floor,” she invited.
Obediently he seated himself, tucking his elongated, bony legs beneath him.
“Are you here for my mama?” she asked.
“Yes,” he finally spoke. His voice was high and rasping, as a man in desperate need of drink.
“Are you Death?”
“Did you kill her?”
“Then why have you come?”
“I am a Reaper. I am the boatman who ferries souls to the next life.”
“Place where they will know happiness,” he promised her, turning his gaze upon the deceased woman. “It is my charge to see them safely to their eternal home.”
“Where would the souls go if you didn’t come for them?”
The Reaper grimaced, the skin around his mouth pulling taut. “They would live on, but unnatural life it would be. Balance in all things. Can be no life without death. Do you see?”
“I don’t know.” She looked down at her mother’s peaceful countenance. “I think I would prefer you left Mama here with me.”
“Would cause her pain,” he said. “She will be happier where I lead.”
“She wouldn’t want to leave me. She would want to stay.”
“It will not be long before you meet again.”
“You mean I’m to die? Am I sick also? Have I got what Mama had?”
“No, not sick. All human lives are short when matched against the stretch of eternity.”
This thought did not seem to comfort the girl. Indeed, she looked more sorrowful than ever, though she had yet to shed a tear. Giving in to another impulse, the Reaper laid out his arm, hand palm up. Slowly the girl put her hand in his, though his dwarfed hers and he could easily crush every bone of her every finger in one squeeze. He held her gently.
“Still I am sorry to take her from you,” he said. “Can you forgive me?”
The girl smiled a little. “Yes,” she said. “I forgive you.” Then, “I like you.”
What was this? This silly little niggling sensation behind his ribs and stomach? It felt like pleasure, he thought, but no pleasure he had ever known before. He was warmed by her regard, and it gave him a quiet, intimate thrill of… Was it appreciation? No, not quite.
Gratitude. That was it. Gratitude.
“I must go on,” he said a few moments later.
The girl nodded, a little sadder now that the time had come for her mother to be taken. The Reaper drew up his hood. Her eyes searched the room briefly, but she did not seem much surprised at his vanishing.
Invisible to her eyes once more, the Reaper stooped beside the child’s mother. He reached within her body and lifted out her soul: it came as the ghostly, sleeping image of her mortal frame. He carried her from the room, leaving the little girl behind him.
He thought of her often after that night, of the girl unafraid of Death and Death’s ferrymen. I like you, she said to him again and again and again.
It wasn’t good to fixate so strongly on one human, he knew that. It would only make it that much harder to take her soul when the time came.
He was given very little chance to forget her, however, as he had occasion to see her again only five years later.
The girl was twelve now and had grown a good deal, but still she was little, due in part to lack of nourishment. This was the same ailment that now drained the life from her father.
The famine had struck a few years back. People all around were dying, and like many families, the man simply could not find enough food to feed himself and his daughter. So he made certain to look after her needs first, and thus did he eventually waste away from starvation.
This time, tears did well up in the girl’s eyes as she sat by her father’s deathbed. This man was so pale, so thin, with such dark chasms beneath his eyes. Nothing like the figure of laughter and life she had once known.
“My darling girl,” he croaked, clutching her hand in his.
“Papa, don’t speak.”
“I wish I could have looked after you better.”
“You have. Oh, you have!” she cried. “No father better.”
His smile shook with unfallen tears. “No, no, I have failed you.”
“Please, Papa, stay. Don’t leave me. Please, Papa, please!”
“Do you remember your mother?”
“Don’t go to her yet,” she cajoled. “Stay with me.”
“I cannot, my darling,” he said. “I’m sorry. So sorry. I’ll give her your love.”
“But… but I—”
“There is one thing,” he said, voice suddenly strained. His eyes burned with need. “One thing you must do for me.”
He held her gaze and smiled as lovingly as ever a father smiled upon his daughter.
Not two hours later he was gone, never to breathe or talk or make merry again. The villain Death had taken him from her as surely as it had taken her mother and her neighbors and her friends. The girl wrapped thin arms around her stomach and stared at the wall for long minutes, feeling like a ghost herself.
Then she sensed that she was not alone. She looked up just as the creature lowered its hood, revealing itself to her sight. He was as she remembered. Just as gruesome in form, but gentle in heart. That had not changed, so much was clear from his sympathetic, shadowed stare.
“You come for my papa?”
“Yes,” he grated. Lord, what a voice. Like a demon from Hell, his tones burnt by smoke and hardened by rock.
“Do you have to take him right away?”
The girl stared at the inhuman figure. She did not wish to be alone. But what was there to talk about between an orphan child and a Reaper of souls?
“Your cloak,” she said finally. “How does it work?”
The Reaper sat cross-legged on the floor, as though no time had passed since their first encounter. “Allows me to pass invisible before mortals,” he told her. “Without it I could not walk amongst you, could not perform my duty.”
“Would it make me invisible too, if I wore it?”
He shook his head. “Not from mortals. From the sights of Reapers would it shield you.”
“That is its law. That is why no mortal must ever wear a Reaper’s cloak.”
Sensing she would get no more out of him on the subject, she asked instead, “Where do you come from?”
The Reaper satisfied her curiosity on every account. He described the swamp that was his origin, across which he ferried the souls of the dead. He spoke of its tall trees, made of no wood found on the mortal plane, its cool and humid air, and the shades of dark green and ethereal blue that colored its landscape. When she asked if he were the only one of his kind, he told her of his many brothers and sisters. Each, he said, looked different than he. Some were small and goblin-like, others the very pictures of human grace and beauty. Some carried their charges across the veil on golden wings, others in chariots. No two Reapers alike.
He talked of his world long into the hours of morning, until she was too tired to go on. When she finally drifted off to sleep, there was no remnant of tears on her cheeks, nor unrest in her soul.
The girl did all she could to honor her father’s dying wish. For a time she managed to live on the streets, subsisting on charity and thievery. But with no family, no home, and no money, her best efforts went to waste before the year was out. By that time she cut an even smaller frame, her cheeks sallow and ribs protruding.
On this particular night the sky was grey wool, an opaque blanketing of clouds that blocked starlight from Earth’s gaze. The girl was curled beneath a hedge, shivering under her dirty, frayed coat, a meager excuse for a blanket. She had almost fallen into a state of unconsciousness when something rustled nearby.
Summoning her energy, the girl opened her eyes. Sitting in front of her, sideways in her hazy vision, was the Reaper.
“You come for me now?” she asked hoarsely.
With a great feat of effort, the girl pushed herself up from the cold, hard ground. His dark eyes watched her.
“You need not rise,” he said.
Funny, she thought, that he seemed to care about her wellbeing, and yet he came here to take her life. She sat across from him.
“When you pass, I will take your soul. You will not suffer.”
“No,” she said.
His large head tilted confusedly.
“No, I… want to come with you now. Will you take me? I don’t want to sit here and wait until my life is stolen from me.”
“Your mortal body cannot travel between the worlds.”
“I understand. But take me as far as I can go. Then you may have my soul, and there let my body lie.”
Acquiescing to her final wish, the Reaper took her hand in his. Together they went down the muddy lane, giant and child, monster and innocent. They remained in silence all the time that they walked down the lane, over the stream, and into the trees, until finally they came to a small clearing in the forest. The girl felt a chill pass through her as they entered the glade.
“Here,” she said.
Releasing her hand, the Reaper pointed a finger and touched something she could not see--and then she could. A boat hung with seaweed bobbed on invisible water two feet belowground, its hull passing through the earth as though it were a cloud. The boat appeared otherworldly and ancient, but the girl knew that if she stepped inside, it would bear her sturdily along.
“Have I time still?” she asked, observing the vessel of her doom.
An ache gusted through the Reaper’s abdomen. This girl did not want to die; she beheld the journey before her with fear. He did not like that. He would take care of her, would see her safely to the other side. Wishing to give comfort to the small human, he placed his hand upon her head, brushing carefully over her orange locks. She startled at the contact, but soon she smiled. It was a sad smile.
“Do you often show yourself to humans?”
“No.” He continued stroking her hair. “You are first and only.”
“Why? Why did you show yourself to me?”
The Reaper thought this over. The answer did not readily occur to him, for he had been asking himself the same question for many years with little result. It had always been a mere impulse, one that he could not define or explain.
Except that, finally, he felt he could.
“I like you,” he said.
The girl looked surprised, and then grateful. Her smile now was brighter, if no less sad.
“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you, my friend.”
Centuries of monotonous, unrewarding work lifted like a weight from the Reaper’s immortal being. For all that his existence had been devoted to easing the passage of humans between the worlds, to making sure that it was not a voyage they had to undertake alone, most of the humans in his charge feared or hated him, blaming him for their death. Never had he received thanks.
The Reaper grinned. The straight rows of teeth unanchored by gums might have frightened other children, but not his friend. Those years ago, he’d thought that revealing himself had been foolishness, but the true foolishness had been staying hidden so long. In all his centuries of reaping, this was the first time he had experienced friendship. He found that he liked it much better than solitude.
“You have always been kind to me,” she continued, her eyelids beginning to droop. The Reaper could feel the life leaving her, just as surely as she could.
He took her hand. “Come. Together we go. I will keep you safe, friend.”
The girl’s eyes closed, her face scrunching in a pained expression. Then she swallowed and nodded, allowing him to draw her to the boat. He stepped inside first. The boat remained steady, as though he weighed nothing at all. The girl stood before the prow, her eyes flicking to the seat behind him.
“Now,” he said, as gently as his gravelly voice allowed, “I take your soul.”
His outstretched arms, which had readied to lift her soul from her body, paused. Stepping forward, the girl wrapped her arms around his neck, burying her head, so small beside his own, against his shoulder.
The Reaper froze. He knew this gesture. He had seen many humans share it over his centuries crawling the Earth. It was a hug, an embrace of friendship and love. He smiled, a hopeful, a grateful, a happy smile. He placed his arms around her in return.
Air whooshed by his ear, and his back was suddenly blasted by the cold wind. His eyes flew wide as the girl leapt backwards from his grasp, a long black cloak clutched in her shaking hand.
A great crack! sounded. The Reaper stared down in horror. The removal of his cloak had made him solid, and now the earth closed up around him. Worse, the flesh of his body had begun to harden, turning to stone before his very eyes. Inch by inch the stone crept upwards, cementing his stomach, his ribs, his shoulders. He shrieked in pain.
“Forgive me, forgive me,” the girl whispered.
The Reaper flung out his skeletal arm, making a desperate grab for the cloak. But it was too late. The girl stumbled further back and he was frozen solid, nothing but rock all the way through.
For a moment all was silent. Then,
“I’m not sorry,” she said decidedly. Her voice trembled. “You wanted to kill me, and I couldn’t let you. I have to live.”
She shook out the stolen cloak and draped it over herself, finding to her surprise that the garment shrunk to fit her small form. It lay warm and heavy against her back, both a comfort and a burden. She drew its hood up over her head.
She had honored her father’s final wish. Death could never take her now.
A girl with orange hair sat cross-legged in front of an old weathered statue. Two faces equally unchanged by the passing of a century, two beings caught between life and death.
“I see now,” she told him, the weariness of her soul weighing each word down. “Oh, my friend… I’m sorry.”