Monday, January 21, 2008

But Somebody Has To Do It

"...hey, what time is it?"
"Almost eight."
"Oh, crap."

Death wasn’t a mean guy. Not really. They knew that. He was just misunderstood. As other Gods modernized—softened in their old age—he held fast to his methods. He offered relief, an ending, closure. The Gods agreed it was quite nice of him. After the illness took hold or the body gave out, Death gave the harvested a gentle pat towards wherever they were going. Well, mainly gentle. Certainly with good intentions, oh yes, the old boy’s quite a softie when you get to know him.

There were whispers, though.

Death heard, of course. He could hear the last gasp of a sparrow before it dropped from the sky (more cynical Gods noted he did nothing to stop the subsequent fall); why wouldn’t he hear the murmurs and whispers of a drunken divine pantheon?

“Did you see what happened to—“
“—terrible, I thought—“
“He’s losing it, don’t you think?”

Death would sip his mead (wine was a Johnny-come-lately, in his mind) and smile and say nothing, because even the Gods didn’t fully understand. They liked him; he was industrious, and soft-spoken, and always polite. But he was weird, and antisocial, and always seemed to be fitting you for your coffin (well, metaphorically speaking).

He was the last to leave the pantheon. Once, Loki waited up—cleaned the tables, sang old songs, looked for that jacket he knew he’d left on Jesus’ chair—but Death never left. The pale man sat and sipped and smiled, until even Loki was unnerved and left in an awful hurry.
No one saw his smile fade, then. Noticed his hands tensing on his black overcoat, far too big for his delicate frame (a Celtic deity marveled he could lift a glass with those thin fingers, much less tear off heads; he did not say this loudly). And no one thought the broken glass the janitors found the next days was Death’s.

Watching duels grow into wars, swords turn into bombs, they thought—hoped, really—that the increasing brutality was part of a plan.

Ineffable actions. Mysterious ways.

Without mystery, brutality was anger. And even the dumbest gods didn’t want to consider that. He hadn’t kept hourglasses in thousands of years. Some of the cleverest ones had stolen theirs ages ago, now cradled them like infants; the rest could only wonder where they’d gone. The idea that the strongest among them, the oldest, was capable of malicious rage made wineglasses tremble and ancient breath stop short.

They whispered. They talked. They didn’t understand.
He used to love his job. It was a kindness, a finishing touch. People died young, or old, or unborn, and the final moment was an end to suffering. There were other gods of disease and of murder. He was simply the lightswitch turning off. But the years wore on, and the people got smarter, and then it happened.

They started to cheat.

He stared, incredulous, at his model globe the first time it came up. A tiny clay figure did not crumble at his touch. Someone did not die when they were supposed to. It took him weeks to finish it, and every subsequent failed attempt sent a painful shock through his being.

The cases piled up. They lasted years. And soon enough he tensed when the clay figures shocked; he wanted no more kindness for them, but endings, utter ones, ones that he controlled. The lesser gods fled and faded. No longer did Pestilence inflict plague; no longer did Zeus hurl thunderbolts. The tools of ending were in his hands, and he used them with decreasing delicacy.

Down below, people held the same hopes. Why did the girl suffer so? Oh, there’s a plan for it all, a mysterious framework. It’s not a miserable being hunched over a globe, knowing us and hating us and jumping at our throats when we fail to die on time. That mysterious calendar is right on time, not thrown in a corner, forgotten for years. And when you reach the other side, your taker will help you on your way, not glare at you and walk away, satisfied.

Death wanted to scream it: there is no plan. There is no order, no purpose, no layers upon layers. There is only me, taking your stubborn ones aside, aligning unseen horrors, and sitting back to watch.

Instead, he smiled, and listened to the dinner chats until he could not listen anymore, and then he tore his ears off, and pulled up the overcoat’s hood.

That was not enough. He read their lips, and so he put his eyes out. He could do his job by feel.
He felt the air move with their concern, and that was when even the dumbest gods left for better climes. Somewhere was the inkling something terrible was going to happen.

The last one to check on him saw a being in a rage. He strode, blind and deaf, from one end of his room to the other. The innumerable clay figures lay torn from their globe, spread across the floor. He was screaming, stomping, empty eyes wide in frenzy. And the dust of billions stained his feet.


William said...

Very nicely done!

I don't understand the symbolism, but that's what makes literature never-ending, really.

Jim said...

Any time I try to think "But what am I really saying with this story?" I fail to write anything at all. So now I just write things that catch my attention. :)