[Author’s Note: Originally written May 2014]
“Why here?” he asked the girl.
She was seventeen or eighteen by the looks of it. He was an age older compared to her. Sixty-five, not yet old but not so young either. The girl had applied a makeup that made her appear pale. Her blonde curls hung down, stopping around her chest. She wore a black hoodie and jeans to keep the cold out. It didn’t seem to help. The place she had elected to meet him was the grungy train station in the town he had grown up. A city close to the state capital and of decent size, but still not notable enough to be known to international visitors. The station looked as if it didn’t have enough cleaning staff to maintain a pristine setting. The ground of the platform was clean enough, rubbish that had been dropped in the last hour hadn’t been picked up but it was part of the regular mess of public spaces. The rusted corrugated iron roof, with what was probably a storied history, hung with cobwebs clinging to its darkest and driest corners of the inner roof. They stood on the bridge that hung over the main tracks leading to the nearby major city. The bridge was only crossed by people trying to get to the far platform, to board trains that planned to take a more rural trip. The nineteenth century looking clock hung over the station telling those who still bothered to read analogue time that it was about twelve past twelve. The station was almost empty except for people who had arrived early for the quarter to one train. The morning commute had subsided and the evening return was still hours off.
In his mid-teens he had loved the station at those hours when he had the holidays to enjoy it. The mid-January sun blazed above shining its warm light through the large opening in the iron roof, designed to, he guessed, light the tracks when the sun was still fresh in the sky. Now the early afternoon sun clung to one side of the tracks below as it made its descent into night. The day held all the nostalgic trappings of his youth when he had been a young artist making the voyage to the big city, sketchbook in hand. He had become quite good at capturing local landscapes, his ultimate ambition, to create those images that hung in galleries discussed by rich folks who had to justify why they spent half a grand on a painting by a local artist. He had one captured the station in those days and the picture had hung for many years in the office of the station’s constable who admired the boy’s work. It was a simple landscape of the evening train just arriving, the sun retreating to its end in the background. He then realised that the time he had just spent buried in his past he was ignoring the girl in black who when he looked at her for a while resembled his first wife, a beautiful but bitter woman who did not share his humour or his idealism for what the world could be. She was a real estate agent, and frugal to a fault. The girl had remained silent while his past played in his head. The question ‘Why here’ still clung in the air, but he sensed an answer coming.
“I think you know why here. Your past was just playing in your head” said the girl in black.
“I suppose so. A fitting place then. Odd, I’d never thought of this place as defining my life but when you think about the places that changed you, they’re most innocuous” he answered her.
“Getting all philosophical, most of the artists do that. A token of their life, I guess”
“You know you weren’t exactly what I was expecting”
“Let me guess, big guy, long black cloak, scythe, skull for a face” she stated as if she had heard his statement a thousand times. She probably had.
“Yes well, you know male-dominated society Death is assumed to be a male. How could anyone know though? Not many survive encounters. Only once people die do they realise the cyclical nature of their lives. Women bring them into the world, and women take them out again. Let’s not forget that both Scandinavian and Baltic folklore once possessed a female Death. She was an old hag but again male-dominated society, male-dominated viewpoint. Death as an evil shrew” she spoke the piece like a thespian, it was clear she had practiced this response well.
“So why appear as a young woman and not an old hag?” he asked.
“Because Death is not as cruel as you perceive. I am a kindness, a relief from the pain of living” she told him.
A kindness? He had been snatched from his bed, age 65, brain aneurysm. Was that kind, and what now? His wife would soon find his lifeless body lying next to her. That comfort of sleeping next to a warm body that fought off the darkness of death would disappear. For the rest of her days the bed would be associated with death. She would sell the bed to remove the reminder of mortality. Not cruel? How cruel was it to leave a lover behind?
“What happens now? Is there an afterlife, a heaven, a hell, anything?” he asked her, now desperate for an extension of living.
“Nope. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. You just become a corpse, your body becoming worm food and lifeless matter”
No pain she had told him earlier? The pain of nothing was something Death provided. No afterlife. These were his last few moments of consciousness. How long would it last, minutes, hours, days? Would he even know how much time has passed?
“So how long have I got?” he asked.
“Till the end of this conversation” she said matter-of-factually.
“So what if I just never stop thinking of things to talk about?” he wondered aloud, thinking he had outsmarted the system.
“Everyone from popes to comedians has tried that route and they all stop talking in the end” she told placidly.
He pouted angrily at that. Death was coming for him quickly and he was powerless to stop it. Suddenly the existential crises of his early twenties felt more justified. That memory took him back to his first serious relationship, it had lasted two years. She had told him upfront that their relationship was to be temporary. He was young and in love and he hadn’t cared. When they got one year in he had asked what had happened to temporary.
“Everything’s temporary” his partner had answered pragmatically.
The silence clung to them both like the heat on a humid afternoon. He was still here, despite the silence that should have signalled the end. What gave her the right? To steal him from his bed, to tell him that it was all hopeless and he was doomed to die. She was a girl, no older than his youngest daughter.
“What gives you the right, huh!” he screamed at her.
She looked at him with an uncaring gaze, as if he might as well not even be there.
“I’m talking to you! You say you’re kind! You come to me with sweet words and then tell me that death is coming for me quicker than a freight train. I didn’t want to die! I don’t want to die! I want to live. I’m going to cling onto life with every breath left in me” he spat at her.
She held a calm fury on her face. As soon as he said it he realised the mistake. She opened her mouth, a low hiss emanated from it. Worms and dirt fell from it. She heaved over as if in pain. He heard the creaking of bones, she turned her head to him as a skull, too large to belong to her, began making its way through her pretty white face. The bone was yellow and cracked. It swallowed her face, she stood upright, and taller. She was now much taller. She towered over him standing now at ten feet, although was she accurate anymore. The figure held no more of its female appearance, or the youth it had just held. The familiar robes became shaped from the hoodie. In black smoke appeared Death’s scythe.
“I tried to be kind. I tried to ease you to nothingness. I tried to be…” she searched for the right word. Her voice was now much deeper but held that feminine quality still. “…human, but you would not go quiet. Now I must steal your life as you have accused me of doing”.
She held out a bony hand.
“Since you men cannot seem to respect in my preferred form then I shall take a form more accustomed to your point of view. The Grim Reaper we spoke of. Perhaps you would prefer me as a hag. Perhaps a beautiful seductress, perhaps a child, beckoning you. It does not matter. I am all these things, and all these things are me. Do not pigeonhole. I give this conversation out of mercy. Those who speak to me with the proper respect, get one more chance. Those who don’t, worm food. Now, the grave becomes my sweet artist. You were not able to convince me of your worth” she spoke with poison.
Suddenly, his throat became constricted. He collapsed. His last vision of the evening train returning home, as Death took him from his life.