For Misha, my best friend and soul sister. May you find beauty in the only constant – change.
It was a summer afternoon – slow like molasses, with the kind of heat that melts marrow to mush. Death lazed on a riverbank, sharpening his scythe with a whetstone. He attempted to tan, which was difficult when you had the complexion of a corpse.
Something rustled in the brush. Death looked at the forest’s edge to find a dirt-smudged girl, watching him from the crook of a tree. She had wild curls, umber skin, and fraying black boots laced to the knee.
Death glided over, plucked a brier rose, and offered it to her. The leaves withered in his grasp.
She studied the inky blackness of his robe, then swung down from her bower.
“A flower for an overcurious girl,” he said, voice honey-sweet
She smelled the woodsmoke and loam that wafted from him, saw the void in his eyes, and recognized Death for what he was. “I don’t take things from strangers,” she said, stubborn nose pointed skyward.
Death circled the girl, tossing his flower to the side. “It’s impolite to refuse gifts, you know.”
“It’s rude to arrive uninvited.”
Kindling flared in his eyes. “No one refuses me; I come and go as I please.”
Undaunted, she pinned his face with wood-dark eyes. “You come too often, and you’re never wanted. You’re a Mormon bicycle boy that knocks at exactly the wrong time.”
“And I suppose you’re the cookie-peddling Girl Scout?” Death asked, amused.
“Something like that. Maybe if you offered Thin Mints instead of death, you’d be more welcome.”
“Don’t tell me how to do my job,” he began, then paused. “How do you know what I am?”
“I saw you at mom’s sickbed. You stood at her wake, collected her soul, and your shade’s haunted our house ever since.”
Death’s lips parted. “I’m sorry for your loss, but such is life’s dance.”
She shrugged. “I don’t blame you. But you shouldn’t be here, out in the daylight, sunbathing. This is my hideout, after all”
“Not welcome, eh?” Death said, motioning to the woods. “The mayflies are breathing their last, and fruits need ripening for the harvest.” He withdrew to the forest’s edge. “Things must be reaped.”
The girl watched as he touched the branch of an apple tree. The blossoms withered and folded in on themselves, growing fat with the gestating seeds. Soon they bore succulent fruit which he plucked, smiling as he sank shining teeth into an apple’s flesh. “Here. Taste the fruit of my work.”
She took one hesitantly: it throbbed with potential, tasted like dream-sand. Her eyes widened and the world grew rich, golden with the beauty that suffused it.
“Is this how you see things?”
“Lovely, isn’t it?”
With that, Death vanished, leaving a withered rose at her feet. She called out his name, breast burning with questions, but only the meadowlark answered.
The summer passed and the girl grew older. She felt the change now, in her bones, like a wild thing. She kept his rose in a vase by her bed. It thrived at her touch, but its petals were black as coal.
Autumn gave way to winter, and a chill crept into her house. Her father, long-mourning, became broken, like an automaton going through the motions of life. He wasted like there were worms in his guts, and neither doctor nor machine could diagnose him.
Somber, the girl – not really a girl anymore, though – cared for him. As the nights dragged on, the petals of her rose veined blue. She watched in morbid fascination as it bruised, tinting its water red. Each morning, it was covered in ruddy dew. She licked the droplets, once – they tasted like Communion wine.
The not-yet-woman, no-longer-child did everything she could to delay the inevitable. She watched as her father was sapped of strength. At night, he cried out to his dead wife. “I can feel her now,” he told his girl, eyes filmy, like rain on a windshield.
The moon thinned to a sickle and her father’s pain waned as he faded.
The girl raged against death. Her pleas slipped off his ears like rain. Her father sank into dreams, conversing with his love, whom he imagined at the foot of his bed. He was taken to the hospital, and though she was old enough take care of herself, the girl was too young to be alone.
At the stroke of eleven, through the peals of a summer storm, she watched as the rose wept blood.
The girl rushed to her father’s sickbed, bursting into the ICU to find Death. She saw his pale hands, hovering over her father’s heart.
“Don’t touch him.”
She grabbed a scalpel and plunged towards the Reaper, brandishing the blade.
He made no motion to defend himself – Death simply stood there, letting the metal part his flesh. He sighed as she crashed into him, steadying her shaking limbs.
“That hurt.” He pried the blade from his empty ribcage.
She pummeled him until her knuckles bled. Death ignored her, watching her father’s arrhythmic heart pulse across the screen.
Strength spent, she collapsed to the floor. “Don’t take him,” she begged.
“Whether I want to or not, it’s his time. All the pleas in the world couldn’t stop me. Or all the knives.” Death smiled softly.
“There must be something you want. Anything, I’ll give it to you. I could show you the best spots to tan, god knows you need it-”
“Trying to bribe me, eh? You know that never works. Don’t fret – your father’ll thrive in the place he’s bound.”
“Afterwards, where do they go? Where’s – well, where’s mom?”
Death toyed with the scalpel. “I don’t know, but I can feel the joy of the souls that pass through me when they get there.”
She clutched her father’s hands. “Happy ending or not, I can’t let him go.”
“Nor should you. That’s what memories are for.”
“You don’t understand.” Tears studded her eyes. “You don’t feel emotions like us.”
“Look, I’ve seen millenia of life, since the first cell replicated its DNA in Earth’s primordial sea. Creation can be terrible, yes, but even in decay, there’s beauty.”
She ignored his words, temple throbbing. Her father’s pulse grew erratic. She called for the doctors. They rushed in, parting Death like fog.
Death rematerialized, observing as they administered shocks to her father’s heart. The tallow of his life sputtered, died: his pulse ran flat.
The girl collapsed to the cold tiles. Nurses laid comforting hands on her shoulders, murmuring assurances. Death let her father’s soul flow through the portal of his obsidian heart, into the great beyond.
The man’s soul lingered a moment, kissed his daughter’s brow, then departed.
The girl stumbled to her car. The hospital had briefed her on the funeral proceedings, asking if she wanted the corpse cremated. She had choked a yes – her father wanted his ashes mingled with her mother’s, together, buried as one in a rainy, flowered graveyard.
Rain pelted the pavement. It was warm. Soaking, she sank to the ground, then vomited. Thunder matched her heaving.
A hand brushed the hair from her brow. She lifted heavy lids, vision fluttering as she saw Death. He proffered a bony hand.
“C’mon. You’ll catch a cold if you stay here.”
“As if I care.” She choked on bile. “I’ve got no one left.”
“You’ve got yourself, and someday, a family. A man to love, children to raise, the world to see. Don’t throw away your potential so easily. You’re about to bloom. I should know, after all, I’m a gardener.”
“Bloom? Like that stupid rose you gave me? It should be dead, but it keeps growing. It’s rotting alive.”
He winced. “I couldn’t give you something living- that’s beyond me.”
“So you gave me the corpse of a rose? Great.”
Death’s face twisted. “Get up, please.”
She sat there, laughing and sobbing, her eyes slicing him as the scalpel had not. He carried her to her car and opened the door without keys, for no barriers stopped him. He set her down, then slid into the driver’s seat.
Death stared at the alien dashboard, perplexed. He placed a hand upon the wheel. The vehicle transformed into a horse-drawn hearse. More familiar. He took her home.
“Why’d you follow me?” Her arms curled round her legs, nails biting into her forearms.
“Because tonight, you shouldn’t be alone.”
She stared out at the rain-heavy forest that bordered the road. “Your company won’t give me much comfort.”
Death bit his lips. He had to remember: she was a wounded animal, licking her cuts. She would lash out with claws and a snarl, even if his intentions were good. He wondered why he’d lingered, after such an unremarkable death. Why he’d given her the rose in the first place. Whimsy, he supposed.
She inhaled sharply.
Death glanced at her drowning eyes. Something stirred in his depths. He remembered her house from the appointment he’d kept months ago, collecting her mother’s soul. It was a decrepit sprawling thing, with peeling paint and ramshackle walls. The girl breathed in relief at its sight, rushing from the hearse inside. Death glided across the weed-choked yard.
She heard the air shift behind her in the foyer. “I should’ve known locks wouldn’t stop you,” she said wearily, trudging into the cluttered kitchen. She slouched against the refrigerator, eyes drifting to the counter. A meat cleaver shined against it. The blade was almost tempting, nearly whispered to her.
“That’d solve nothing,” Death warned, moving to block the knife from her vision.
“Dad gave up,” she echoed. “He let misery rule him. Why shouldn’t I?”
“Because. You’re stronger than him.”
“I’m not. I’m scared shitless, miserable, and alone. Mom’s death broke dad, and their loss will break me.”
“Trust me, time will heal you. Think of it as growing pains: the old dies, giving way to the new. Your parents just passed on earlier than most.”
“You don’t get it. I can’t deal with this.” She struggled to her feet. “Get out of my house. You’ve done enough.”
Without a glance back, she stumbled to her room, then collapsed on the bed. Death heard her animal shrieks. He tucked away the gleaming cleaver in a drawer, fixing the knife container so the implements wouldn’t budge. He waited until her sobs gave way to fitful sleep.
He entered her room. Death rested a hand on her brow, killing some of her pain. It was bittersweet on his tongue as he crushed it between his teeth. She stirred, a sob escaping her lips, and he pressed his finger against them, letting a peaceful slumber slip down her throat.
The equinox approached, and as the days grew longer, the girl’s pain waned. She found her thoughts straying to things beyond sadness. The brighter the sun shone, the more she dreamed of that hot summer day. Of apples ripening before her eyes, and the hand that had changed them. Grief became acceptance, and acceptance, understanding.
The girl moved on.
Death watched her, and the rose turned a heavenly blue. She woke each morning to its bittersweet scent, like whispers and fresh rain.
She shed the last vestiges of youth, until one morning she rose in full bloom. Death saw how ripe she had grown and, as always, the temptation to pluck the most beautiful of blossoms arose. To capture her magnificence before it faded. For who else could appreciate it, if not him, who savored it last?
That was why, on occasion, he collected souls before their time. Before their beauty faded, or their talents fell to madness and abuse. Mozart, Hendrix, and Marilyn, to name a few. Botticelli’s own Venus, Simonetta Vespucci, he had cut down at the tender age of twenty-two from the blood-blossom of consumption.
Their fame remained immortal, never to fade. Perfect ever in death.
It wasn’t often he reaped those that burned their tallows at both ends, but it was enough to cause him shame. And the girl would know his intentions; her eyes could cut through his veil.
Even now, she noticed the blots of darkness too large to be her shadow, the scent of woodsmoke that lingered out of place. She smiled at him, though he remained unseen. She smiled at the darkness, as one who knows what it hides. She smiled, without fear, as if greeting an old friend –
He couldn’t take her, not now, however much he yearned.
She bloomed so tantalizingly, and the world saw. It noticed the brilliant flower that perfumed the wind: her rosy petals, how she stared at the heavens, swallowing the sun. Some tried to pluck her, others fed her sweet waters and let her scent fill their dreams.
Death watched as hands caressed her with a twinge of envy. He watched them tear her blossoms, uproot her. He watched her wither, starve, and drown. He watched, but never did he touch. And always, he witnessed her bloom again, always more potent than before. She claimed a part of the earth as her own, spread hungry roots, and fed her thirsty dream.
Years came and went. She left her small town nestled in the mountains’ crook for the madness of the city, searching. She saw traces of her dream, in the eyes of lovers and the flashing signs of Times Square. It glinted in the rain that kissed asphalt, spiraling down the gutter. Reflected on sky scrapers, it played across windows, dancing just out of reach. Her muse whispered – in the frayed binding of college textbooks, in a busker’s melody and the taste of a hundred coffees.
She tried to master her dream, penning poems delivered in dim cafes, snapping photos of decrepit buildings and people life forgot. Their negatives haunted her mind; the shadows clung to them like skin. The winos and the addicts, the homeless, the insane. The girl watched them reach out to passerby and saw the masses brush them aside. She saw the lights flicker and dampen in their eyes.
It pained her. With every dismissal, the shadows tightened their crushing coils round the forgotten, bringing them one step closer to Death.
The shadows clung to everyone; the closer she looked, the more she noticed. They embraced the burly executive who rode the bus with haggard eyes. The slim girl, the scarred artist, the quiet Chinese grandmother with a tortoiseshell comb in her hair. All were veiled by black. The shadows draped across Wall Street, and a thick smog choked Ground Zero. Sometimes, she could hear the echoes of screams coming from where the Twin Towers once stood.
The girl would blink, and the shadows would disappear. But not for long, never for long, and when she passed by, they emerged like parasites from their owners, turning monstrous heads to watch her. They smirked, eyes threatening, yet she met their gazes, stoic. “You don’t scare me,” she’d whisper.
Death was impressed. His denizens should have terrified her, but they merely made her catch her breath, then carry on.
He tested her limits. He showed her snatches of the past, letting ghosts flood the streets. She froze in Central Park as the spirits swarmed her, noticed the strange looks of passerby, then gathered herself. She marched up to the nearest spirit and touched its face. Her hand swiped damp mist. Shielding her brow, she strode through the throng of spirits, emerging chilled but otherwise unharmed.
Death stroked his chin, shepherding the spirits back to their graves. He gave a laugh like bones rolling in a grave.
“Nice trick, Grim” she muttered, resuming her jog. It wasn’t long until Death overtook her, gliding beside her as she ran.
“It’s nothing. I was bored; it’s been slow reaping lately, everything’s so dreadfully peaceful.”
“You need a hobby. How about sports?”
“Every team I root for is struck by calamity.”
“Then cheer on the team you despise.”
“That’s no fun.”
“The more I touch a plant, the quicker it ages, the faster it dies.”
“… Taxidermy? That suits you.” She paused, breaths heavy, and sipped water.
“No. My passion’s dancing.” He looked at the billowing clouds. “Unfortunately, everyone I dance with winds up dead.”
“I’m sure they’ve got dance halls in Heaven. Aren’t angels natural musicians?”
“I’ll be damned if Heaven exists. All I know, yellow canary, is that there’s life, and there’s the beyond.”
He grinned crookedly. “Like a light in a coal mine.”
“What a dumb name.” She capped her water. “The shadows that surround everyone: what are they?”
“They’re pieces of me, I suppose. Each human carries a seed of darkness inside them, the shadow of death.” Death yawned, fanning himself in the heat, and relaxed on a bench, looking at her under lidded eyes.
The girl sat next to him.
A bold pigeon waddled up to her, pink eyes imploring. “So they’re parts of you, huh? Talk about devils on shoulders.” She reached into her pocket and withdrew some dried crust she kept for such occasions. Holding it out, she let the pigeon nuzzle her fingers and gobble the crumbs down.
“More or less. You know that pigeons are riddled with disease, right?”
She laughed. “Who’re you to tell me what’s safe? Anyways, talking with you is way more dangerous, but I’m still alive, aren’t I?”
“Don’t tempt the Reaper.”
She looked out across the lush grass and dandelions erupting from cracks in the pavement. “We tempt you just by living.”
“That’s a depressing outlook.”
“Depressing, but true. You must hate watching things, everything, that you can see but never have.” She watched the pigeon fly away, leaving a trail of crumbs.
He furrowed his brow. “And it must frustrate you, going though life with something burning within you, driving you to chase something wild, something without a name – a thing you couldn’t recognize even if it held you at gunpoint.”
Her gaze grew stormy.
Death shifted, uneasy.
“Maybe I don’t understand you, or even what I’m after,” she finally said. “But life? Life’s something I know intimately. But all you can do is watch and wonder what it’s like, to live, to breathe, to feel.”
“Have you ever danced so madly to life’s music your feet bleed and you fell down dead? Have you lived, really lived, every moment to its fullest?”
She paused. “No,” she admitted. “I haven’t.”
“Therein lies your failure. Let me to tell you a little secret: life’s a test that everyone fails. Nothing, great or small, long-lived or fleeting, achieves its greatest potential. It’s only the dead that know how to live: with the hindsight of a lifetime, they realize all the things they’ve done wrong. But it’s too late for them. Life’s rigged, and everyone loses. Life, unconquerable, yields her secrets to no one. Not even me, its end.”
She rubbed her brow. “It’s too early in the morning for metaphysics. I can’t follow this discussion anymore.”
Death laughed, rising. “I don’t like philosophy either. We’re here, we exist, and any wondering beyond that is a waste of time.”
“But I do have a question,” she said hastily, before he disappeared yet again. “How is it that you have a personality? You shouldn’t be real.”
“According to whom?”
“There’s a point where things grow so complex, there are no rules. Rhyme takes over, and everything you knew before no longer applies. I don’t need reason to justify my existence. I just am.”
In a shaft of sun, he ascended, quite dramatically, she thought. She wondered if his ego was the size of the moon. The girl shook her head.
“Good riddance,” she muttered, looking around the park at the concerned faces peering back.
She turned white, realizing talking with Death – invisible to others – had made her seem like a bag lady. Blushing, she jogged from the clearing, into the cool shade of the woods. The path was unusually bare, pavement lined with no one but the emerald leaves and the wind rustling beside her. She banished all questions to the recesses of her mind, cutting through the woods with the mindlessness of a bullet. If she went fast enough, she could outrun even him.
Next time, she thought, she would catch Death by surprise. She would be the one to find him.
Fall drew near, and the rose’s petals began to wilt. The girl watched as the rose bore fruit, forming a glossy orb. Death’s words echoed in her mind, something he had told her in a dream, maybe:
“That Fruit was meant to be eaten by Man. It was Nature’s design.”
She let the rose hip be, never daring to pluck it. Still, she wondered. What was the fruit of Death? And, once eaten, what would it bring?
The girl yearned for the rugged mountains and freedom of home. The city was smeared with the grime of centuries; the earth beneath it had forgotten how to dream. The shadows were everywhere, chained to stranger’s spines. They stared back at her through others’ eyes, slithering out orifices, hissing.
They could smell his fruit on her, the taint of death. The ripening rose hip’s aroma clung to her, drawing things from beyond the veil. She could see demons in the hearts of men, angels in others, and strange snakes twined round stranger’s ribs. Evanescent sheens of blood clung to the hands of killers, and stars gleamed in healers’ eyes. Souls were laid bare before her, and she saw people’s true forms.
Her photographs became ethereal, the gritty made transcendent with her new-found vision: a wizened wino’s face, rendered lovingly so the viewer could see the saint’s soul within. An icy actress, made vulnerable in the shifting light of the moon. She stitched rainbows out of oil spills and knit crystals from iced sidewalks. Her art touched others, deep in their psyches, and she was hailed as the eye of her generation.
Maybe it was the fruit that affected her so, or maybe her eyes had always been sharp. She’d seen Death, after all. Regardless, her fame spread, and she grew rich off the love of her labor, birthing art and truth.
Death watched as she was swept up into the whirlwind of the world, sent to far-off places to capture life as it unfolded before her camera. Her pictures graced the covers of glossy magazines.
Death leafed through a newspaper bearing her work, sipping his espresso in deep contemplation. There she was again, behind the lens in a war zone. Snapping pictures of corrupt politicians. Up close and personal with a drug lord.
She must see them as I do, Death pondered. The maggots of humanity, their insides festering with rot. Her pictures dissected them, exposed the sickness behind their exteriors. He finished his bitter shot of espresso and watched rain kiss the cobblestone canals of Venice, tucked inside a cozy cafe.
Had he known what he was doing when he’d gifted her with a blossom from the Tree of Life? Perhaps. His actions were rarely conscious ones – they arose from impulse and fate, which were usually one and the same.
He glanced at his reflection in the aged mirror lining the wall. The deaths of infinity stared back at him. Her end wavered before him, a pinch of sand away.
He watched her soul flutter, dancing against the winds of time as the shadow of her exit waltzed closer.
How he longed to extend his hand and lead her shining soul onwards. She would resist, slicing away as he danced her to the brink of oblivion.
What an exquisite partner she would be.
Her soul shone in the mirror. Death watched for hours, mesmerized, until day turned dark and the cafe closed. He clenched the newspaper in his hand, strolling through the streets and whistling to the stars.
Under his mantle of shadow, he seeped into the night. He could smell the Fruit of Life, tracked its scent like a bloodhound across the Atlantic to the chill waters of the Hudson.
She lay asleep in a loft lit by candlelight, naked in the arms of a man. Death hovered at the foot of her bed, glancing at the vase on her nightstand.
The Fruit lay tucked away beneath lilies and baby’s breath. He took it in his cold, cold hands, crushed it until its juices flowed. He dabbed the liquid onto her eyelids, pressed it to her lips.
She jolted awake. “You?” she breathed, drawing the blankets around her. “Not now. Not while I’m like this.”
“Good evening to you too, canary,” Death said, sitting at the foot of her bed. “Nice boy toy you’ve got. Well-hung too.”
“He’s my fiancée.” She laced her fingers together. “What do you want? Because it can’t be my life, or his. I see your shadows now, hanging over everyone. My time hasn’t come.”
He leaned closer, smile crooked. “Tell me, what do you see these days? Your pictures are captivating. You capture the essence of your subjects. Such discrimination, quite an eye for detail. Where did that talent come from, I wonder?”
“I’ve always had keen eyes,” she said, guarded.
“I saw you, clinging to the shadows of my house, when everyone else turned a blind eye to your existence. You didn’t recognize me, not until I followed you.”
Death stiffened. “You followed me? That’s not what I remember.”
The girl smirked. “Of course I did. I kept tabs on you ever since my mom died, watching your comings and goings, figuring out your haunts. I was hunting you.” She laughed. “It was dumb, but I wanted to destroy you.”
“Yeah, I guess. So no one would have to suffer again. It was idiotic, probably impossible, but I wanted to beat you to a shadow of yourself, so weak you could only claim the old and sick. I know how you operate: you covet beauty. You drain those you desire of life before their time. I wanted to change that.”
Death chuckled. “We all have flaws. And unfortunately, I’m unstoppable – incorrigible to boot. But that doesn’t prevent the living from raging against death. And it didn’t stop you. So tell me, how would you strike out against something you couldn’t touch?”
“You’re mocking me.”
“Maybe a little.”
She sighed, tangled curls shining in the candlelight. “There’s no way, is there? All we can do is live our damnedest. I remember what you said: life’s rigged. In the end, you win. Nothing’s immortal.” She looked out her window at the velvet sky. “Not even stars. All we can do is burn brightly and try to blind you.”
“The brighter the flame, the quicker it burns, and the more moths it draws: dark shadows that want so dearly to possess a little light of their own.”
Her face grew stony. “That’s impossible. Don’t kid yourself, you know it. You may exist, but you can never live, no matter how many souls you tempt. Your dance leads to death. We can’t dance you alive.”
A shadow passed over his face. “We always want what we can’t have,” he said. Wistful, remembering: every twist in the danse macabre, the throbbing of hearts in his hand. How mortal faces, once flushed with life, grew wan. He danced them to dust, until their souls slipped through his barren heart like mist, into the great beyond.
“You think life is so grand, don’t you?” she said, interrupting his reverie.
“I do. Truly.”
“I see – wait.” She paused, blinking hard. “I can see in the dark. What?” She examined her hands, as distinctive as they were in daylight.
She looked around her room like a startled doe: everything was vivid, clear. She could see shadow against shadow, muted colors where there had once been darkness.
It was too visceral – she closed her eyes, breathing deeply. She could smell her scent, mingled with her fiancée’s spice and the earthy, smoky musk of Death, even the incense she’d burned a month ago, lingering in the corners of her room.
The girl remembered a summer long past and an apple ripened before its time. Her eyes snapped open. “Where’s the fruit?” she demanded.
Death looked at his fingertips idly. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said airily, watching the juice shine on her lips.
She followed his gaze, heat rising in her cheeks. Tentatively, she licked her mouth, pupils dilating as the ambrosial taste registered on her tongue. “You didn’t.”
“Actually, I did. It’s time.”
“Time for you to leave!”
“No. For you to bear fruit.”
Her lips curled into a snarl. “You forced it on me.”
“The world needs you.”
“What about my needs?”
She slapped him, hard.
He rubbed the red welt on his cheek. “I’d apologize, but I don’t want to be insincere.”
“All my life, I’ve cared for others: mom, dad, the forgotten – whose faces make me choke.” She bit her lips. “I work to bring them justice. I see their suffering, every day. It makes me sick.” Bile rose in her throat. “All I can do is try to show the world what I see, or else I’ll go mad.” She choked on her words. “I’ve never had a choice.”
Death smiled. “You sound like me during a drunken rant.”
“I,” she spat, “am nothing like you.”
Her voice echoed through the alleys. A summer wind blew, extinguishing the candles.
Death licked a bit of the rose hip’s juice from his fingers. “What does your soul look like?”
She drew the blankets round her, shaking.
“When you see it in the looking glass. What is the shape of your spirit?”
“A mockery, that’s what,” she whispered. “I’m not yours. I never was.”
Death smiled, almost cruel. “I never said you were. But,” he said, a hair’s-length from her, “I’m not alone in this line of work.”
Chills danced across her flesh. “You’re mad.”
“Life’s mad. Will you dance to its chaos, with me?”
“I don’t want to.” The vision of a thousand mirrors screeched through her brain.
Cricket-song filled the silence between them. Death extended his palm.
“Do you have a choice?”
Her feet began to itch, and her heart pumped a staccato rhythm. “Do mirrors lie?” she asked, desperate.
“Not for you.”
He took her hand.
Death and the maiden rose, and he led her to the mirror, their silhouettes cut by the moon.
She stared at her soul; then, into his. Their shadows intertwined, counterparts. His great black wings against her soft white ones. Hers a crown of roses, his of thorns. His gaze the vast, all-encompassing pit. And her eyes, just like bark.
Death and the maiden. Two faces of life’s coin.
His grip tightened round her. He drew her close. “Do you understand?”
She looked up into his cold eyes. The maiden placed one hand on his shoulder, the other in his outstretched palm. “Does anyone?” she murmured, feeling the pulse of the universe beneath his wrist. The rhythm of his blood. “It just is, from electrons to the stars. The music – the dance.”
The empty space in Death’s chest – where his heart would have been, where she should be – stirred. “Come with me.”
He led her into the sea of the night. A blast of air blew open the window and he whisked her away, out onto the fire escape, above the glittering skyline. The city spilled like jewels below.
She clung to him. “I hate heights.”
“Height’s relative. You’ll forget it soon enough.” He spun her from his embrace.
She stumbled, but did not fall. The night caught her, like a silky blanket beneath her feet, and the wind bore her aloft to the heavens above. The beauty of the moon struck her tongueless, and the clouds’ vapor shimmered like rainbows in the starlight.
Her body was seized with a primal force, kindling her limbs with fire. She would dance, until her feet wore down to bloody nubs.
A song pulsed through the night, the lamentations of the dead and the cries of those newly born. They mingled with lover’s sighs, children’s breath, mixing with the symphony of the world, until a chimera filled the sky. At its core was the heartbeat of the universe. It was the music of life.
Death bowed, then waltzed forward and, ever so gently, took her hand. He led her into a sinuous movement with no beginning and no end. The sky was their ballroom, the moon their chandelier.
Her limbs grew cold, and her consciousness ground to dust. Up and down in a waltz gone mad, they spun like two planets with their axes unhinged.
Her feet wept gore, for dancing on stars tears skin. He was talking to her, of the universe and what lay beyond, but she heard only life’s song.
She grew exhausted; he was tireless. She had to dance, could do nothing but move. If she stopped, she would die. That, or be born anew.
Dawn came, days and nights passed, yet still she endured, clinging to life with the hunger of a starved lion.
“Are you trying to kill me?” she finally gasped, reaching her limit.
Death laughed so hard the heavens shook. “Feel dead yet, canary?”
She struggled to speak, each breath vital. “I’m numb. I can’t remember anything, not my name. I don’t even know if I ever had one.”
She tripped in exhaustion, and Death caught her with inexorable arms.
She struggled to her feet, resuming the dance.
Death fed off her burning mortality. He licked his lips in hunger. “Just a bit longer. That is, if you can last that long.”
He led her in a sequence of spins and interlocking footwork more vicious than all before. It was the dance of predator and prey. Her steps were faulty; the need to escape wracked her brain as he chased her across the sky.
The heavens darkened as thunderheads swelled with rain. Lightning split the sky, blinding her, and Death’s laughter joined the chorus of the storm. She was drenched, freezing, her breath crystallized by the wind.
The maiden’s blood joined the firmament’s tears. She gulped down ozone, clawing at her last reserve of strength.
He watched her eyes dim, breathing in the sweet smell of her almost-death. Water droplets shone like diamonds in her hair and her skin had grown nearly as pale as his own.
He wondered: would she bloom to her full potential, or wither in his embrace? The maiden stared into his hungry eyes. He dipped her low until she was staring up, up, up into the
sky. It would be so simple, she thought, soul-weary, to slip into that infinite black.
“Go on,” Death murmured, caressing her cheek. “Show it to me. That dream you’ve been chasing all along,”
The stars in her eyes were nearly extinguished. He felt the slowing pulse beneath her wrist and watched her flesh drain of blood. Just a heartbeat more, and she would be his.
Something within her snapped. “No!” she shouted, slapping his hand from her face. She fled his embrace.
Her eyes shone with new life. She danced counter to the song of the universe, against nature’s demand. Her body undulated, hips swaying like Salome. With twisting spider limbs, she wove a web that could trap a falcon in mid-flight.
Death was transfixed, watching as the pulsing thunder began to follow her lead. The embers in her eyes blazed anew. Fearless, she opened her lips, and with the voice of a siren began to sing. The whipping wind was her song.
Her voice was a ripe apple, her melody the rushing ocean. Her song crescendoed, fell, and finally, she sang of him.
He was powerless, obeying each command her words trickled forth. She drove him back to the darkness. The storm dissipated as nature shifted, following her will.
The maiden ordered the sun to burn away every trace of his shadow.
Death stood naked before her, stripped of his power. He shuddered in the light; pain wracked every inch of his being. He fell to his knees, shielding his brow from the maiden’s new-found glory, her form silhouetted against the dawn.
Death laughed through gritted teeth: he had melted her to her breaking point, then cast her anew with tongs of glorious life. Her soul, driven wild by the danse macabre, had abandoned its mortality.
She had re-forged herself out of sheer, clawing will: like lead into gold, her human nature was transmuted into that of the divine.
He grinned up at her shining form. “Amazing,” he said, tears stinging his eyes. “A worthier partner never graced my arms.”
Her voice echoed through the mountains. “Have you damned me?” She looked at the radiance that streamed from her flesh. “This isn’t natural,” she said, voice shaky. “I’m like you.”
“The opposite, actually. Darkness can’t drive out darkness. Only light can do that.”
He struggled to crawl forwards, the light of glory and life sapping him of strength. His bleeding eyes looked at her form. “You always were her, you know.”
“What am I?”
“Everything I’m not. Will you take my hand, canary, and help me stand?”
She took his trembling fingers.
He reeled, her touch like eternity.
Their lips met, soft as falling snow.
Strange thunder stirred in the maiden’s heart. Rain mingled with her tears, baptizing her in a storm both harsh and sweet.
Life flowed through Death’s lips, and he closed his eyes.
The maiden’s memories returned to her. “My name? I remember it. Your’s too. We met in a garden, long ago. We always meet in a garden, I think.”
He held her close, as if the winds would rip her away. “I’ve sung your name to a thousand stars, seen your face in hazy dreams. I’ve sought you through eternity. Tell me, where have you been hiding, all these lonely years?”
She smiled softly. “I could ask you the same question.”
His grin was crooked. “I dreamt of your existence. I thought: how callous was the universe, to create just me, me alone? You’re a terpsichore – the pulsing rhythm of the blood I never had.”
“Even if we know our dream, sometimes, we don’t recognize them. Life’s funny that way.”
“Strange, isn’t it?”
Death’s voice trailed off. He found himself shaking, scared for the first time in his ancient, unlived life. He peered into her pupils, searching for the source of his terror.
She felt lightning race through her veins. The levin bolts struck his thirsting soul, and Death knew, finally, what her strange passion was.
“So this is hope?” he whispered.
He peered into his empty ribs, searching in the bowels of destruction. There, within the depths of the pit, burnt a newborn flame. He unfurled his hand, and the bittersweet fire piped up his arm, licked his palm.
He blew it gently to tendrils of smoke. The embers drifted, crowning her hair.
They were strange to one another, yet born of the same skin.
Alpha and omega.
Death and the maiden.