Death Draws Near
No one passing the small churchyard on that Sunday afternoon would have noticed the man lingering amongst the shadows of the tombstones.
He was little more than a shadow himself; tall, thin, and draped in dark gray robes with a mass of disheveled black hair. No, no one would have noticed him, for one does not look directly at Death.
He, on the other hand, noticed everything and everyone, despite only moving his eyes. At long last, he finally spoke, half to himself and half to the large raven on his right shoulder. “It cannot be her.”
The ‘her’ in question was talking to her large and absurdly fluffy, black dog as they walked along the sidewalk towards their home. The two story brick house looked snug and cozy on this brisk October afternoon.
Once they reached the front yard she let the dog off his leash and he ran up the slate path with a joyous bark. She laughed and followed close behind, unlocked the green front door and then they both slipped inside.
He watched all of this with a mixture of confusion and curiosity, taking in the apple green Volkswagen in the porte-cochere, the large, cheerful pumpkin on the stoop, and the wreath of wheat and apples on the front door and huffed in exasperation.
He shook his head and spoke again. “Are you sure you were guided true?”
The raven hopped on his shoulder but made no sound. “Fine. This may be the correct location, but that girl cannot be who we were sent for. Does she live with anyone else besides the dog?” At this the raven flapped his wings and nipped his master’s hair.
“No? Interesting. Take a closer look please. You know how I feel about dogs.”
Animals were always harder to hide from than humans, and dogs were especially difficult to win over. Cats, due to having nine lives, were fairly indifferent. They were used to him and his kind. And he had not been comfortable around dogs for centuries, not since...well, that particular incident did not bear thinking about.
Dutifully, the raven took flight and circled the house three times. He paused on each side of the house, listening and observing, first in the front yard, then in a large elm tree, then on the roof, and finally on the large bird bath in the backyard.
He saw the girl, a young woman really, through a window working in the kitchen. He stayed a beat longer than necessary as he listened to her sing as she chopped vegetables.
If it was possible for a bird to smile he would have. Remembering his mission he took to the air and flew back to his master to report what he had learned.
“Good, if the dog is inside we can move closer and observe her more thoroughly. Anything else of note?”
“Caw. Caw-caw, crick.”
“It is autumn Corvus, every house has chrysanthemums. It means nothing.”
Corvus pecked him in response.
“Stop that,’ he admonished. ’What makes you so certain? The oracle bones do not provide us with a name, or even the exact location. They merely give you a feeling to guide us. And they have led you to the wrong person before.”
Corvus pecked him again and made a hacking sort of noise.
“Oh, I don’t blame you for that at all. I blame the bones.”
“Yes, it was four hundred years ago, but it forced me to do this with three people before I found the one who would serve. I do not intend to let that go.”
“Caw, caw, cr-ruck, caw, caw.”
“A stand of cypress trees in the backyard is a good sign. Shall we?” With that Mors drew his gray robes around him and disappeared, reappearing with a slight puff of smoke in a group of three cypress trees in the yard.
“Let us watch a while longer. I want to learn more before I decide on my course of action.” He could hear her singing as she worked, which only served to reinforce his initial impression that the oracle had been screwed up by Saturn, until he recognized the song.
“The worst pies in London, even that’s polite. The worst pies in London, if you doubt it, take a bite.”
At this Mors cracked a small smile. He noticed Corvus looking at him with as smug of an expression as the bird could manage.
“I still doubt it is her, but if it is, at least she will have a field day with Rodgers and Hammerstein.”
He could still hear their laments over a musical about murder and cannibalism winning the Tony award, whatever that was.
He did not bother to stay up to date on humans’ interests. He was not concerned with their lives, only their deaths. Yet even in death humans clung to the vestiges of their lives, and Persephone had made allowances for them to stay abreast of things that mattered deeply to them.
As he watched her work night crept in and he murmured a greeting, though he did not receive a reply. The sounds of night grew around him, but still all he did was watch. Watch her work, and listen to her laugh, sing, and talk to her dog.
Delicious aromas wafted from the home, which would have made any mortal man hungry, but he had no need to eat, nor had he bothered with any mortal fare since the Great Plague.
He felt a pang of sorrow about that, as he remembered the futile offerings desperate humans had made in the hopes of staying his visits. Truth be told, what food even tasted like was only a faint memory.
Just as he had decided to return to his home for another round of oracle consulting, two cars arrived at the house. Lights flew on outside and a side door was thrown open. The woman ran out, along with her excited dog, as the cars divested themselves of their occupants.
Happy noise and confusion filled the air. He raised an eyebrow and whispered triumphantly to Corvus, “You see now. We can both be right. This could be the place after all, but we were meant to wait for the others to arrive. There are two more women in that gaggle of people.”
Corvus huffed and flapped his wings again. He snapped his beak at him. Mors quickly put his hand out and held the bird’s beak closed.
“Quiet, Corvus. Listen.”
“Will someone give me a hand with the salad? I can’t get up. The bowl is too big.”
“Hang on! Damn, I brought two bottles of red instead of one of each.”
“Evelyn, you’re the absolute best for having us over like this.”
“You know I love it, Geoffrey,” she responded and kissed the man who’d spoken on the cheek.
“Bark, bark, bark, bark!” The dog bounced around the new arrivals, wagging his tail and trying to gain their attention.
“Easy, Edgar, don’t jump!”
“Marisol, please tell me you made that fantastic salad dressing too.”
“Of course I did.” The woman called Marisol beamed at a blonde young woman.
“Sylvia, where is Joel?” Evelyn asked the same woman.
“He is completely engrossed in a painting and asked if he could get his dinner brought home. He went so far as to send Tupperware with me.” Sylvia waved it in greeting.
“George, what on earth are you wearing?” a tall and strapping young man asked a flamboyantly dressed slimmer one.
“Isn’t it hideous? I told him not to wear it, but he insisted.” The one Evelyn had addressed as Geoffrey rolled his eyes.
“Don’t judge me,” George retorted, brandishing the aforementioned wine.
“I swear he thinks he is the second coming of Oscar Wilde.”
“You didn’t mind my second coming last night.”
Hoots and laughter filled the air as the crowd of people tumbled into the house. Evelyn was the last to enter as she had to coax Edgar back inside.
He was determined to stand guard at the door for he had scented Mors once the commotion of the guests’ arrival had settled down. He growled at the back yard.
“Eddie, come on boy. Edgar, come. Edgar Allen Poe, come now!”
Mors cracked another smile at that. Moody Poe’s namesake: a boisterous, fluffy beast. He could already see the irritation on that shade’s face. She paused and tried another tactic.
She crooned “would you like a liver treat?” Edgar broke his eye contact with the backyard and wagged his tail at his mom.
“Oh boy, liver treats!” He loved liver treats. He went inside with Evelyn telling himself he would return to his vigil after his treat. And the roast duck. And some tummy rubs.
“Evelyn. Meaning desired. This is patently ridiculous.” Over the years he had learned to expect and look for a certain type of human. Isolated and unremarkable; their shade already dimmed and gray, through illness or grief, no longer fully alive, no matter the length of their life’s thread.
They were the type of young women whose deaths did not come as a shock, or merit much comment, if they were even noticed at all. And they had names that meant sorrow or bitter, not desired.
All of those factors combined to make those shades ideal Nenia Dea, underworld spirits who would not let a single shade enter the afterlife forgotten or unmourned.
This one, this Evelyn, was all wrong. For one thing, her shade burned so brightly that he was surprised half the continent could not see it. He heard peals of laughter coming from the house and shook his head again.
She was simply too spirited, too connected, too colorful, too….alive. She would never be a Nenia Dea; he did not care what the bones had said. Nor would any of her bright companions whose shades glowed in various hues of pink, blue, and green. And yet, they had led Corvus here.
“I think we should return home and consult the bones again, Corvus. Something is amiss.” Corvus flapped his wings in alarm.
No, Corvus knew this was the woman they sought. He had searched for nearly ten years for her.
“Really Corvus, I cannot wait here all night for some sign to disprove my years of experience.”
Corvus flew down from Mors’s shoulder and landed on a window ledge. He began to hop steadfastly towards the latch. In an instant, Mors realized what his trusted companion was planning to do and he hissed “Stop.”
Corvus cocked his head towards the house. “Fine. I will leave others to watch on my behalf.” Mors placed his hand on the trunk of one of the trees and spiders flocked to him. “Go my little ones and watch them for me.”
The spiders dispersed, making their way towards the house. “Happy now, bird?” Corvus flew back to Mors and landed on his shoulder once more, gave a throaty “crick” in reply, and they faded into the darkness.