The road was bumpy and my dog, Zeph, jostled in the back seat. A long, dramatic stretch and yowl told me he was displeased with my driving skills.
“Oh hush,” I chide him. “My ass isn’t loving the up and down either.”
What could I do? When I said I wanted seclusion, that meant bumpy dirt roads.
The lake house wasn’t too much further. A few more twists and we would be there. The wind was cold, but at least it had stopped raining.
As we pulled in, Zeph perked up, sniffing the pine trees around us.
“Excited bud? Let’s get stuff put away and we can check out the trails.”
The afternoon is spent exploring the local paths, finding small deer tracks to follow. Zeph chases squirrels with deft irritation. He will never get them up here. Too many trees for them to climb before he even has a chance. His droopy puppy eyes show his disappointment. Like I would ever let him touch a hair on their bushy tails.
We stroll to the end of a lane opening to a lake. The wind has picked up and it sends splats of water into our faces.
The stones around the area are flat and smooth, perfect for skipping. My father taught me to skip stones as a child, I remember watching him fly fish while I practiced off to the side. I made sure to throw the rocks opposite of his direction as to not disturb the fish he was trying to catch.
I must have tossed 100 rocks to their watery graves, delighting in the hopping path each took before rest. Zeph is running the length of the beach, his tail flipping back and forth. He jumps on a wave crashing into the sand, burying his little paws in the cold, wet, ground.
“I’m freezing, pup,” I announce. “Let’s get back to this cabin and start a fire.”
I go to throw one last stone, but it catches me and I can’t let it go. The rock is black slate and perfectly ear shaped. I, instead, put it into my pocket, grab Zeph, and head back. He’s not happy to leave, but the warm car is a welcomed sight and he jumps right in.
The sun is going down when I start dinner. Nothing fancy, just PB+J with chips and carrots. Zeph hates the crunch of the orange sticks. He wants some, to share, but he’s not a fan of vegetables.
It’s dark by the time I finish and head out to the pit. I had already dropped the wood by the fire, and thank goodness I had, I couldn’t see anything past the end of the house.
The wind was blowing so hard, I didn’t know if I was going to get a flame going. Zeph decided it was too much for him and left me to cuddle up on the bed inside. It was for the best, I needed some alone time.
This summer had been hard. I let my mind wander to the troubles I had. There was a point when getting out of bed was the most difficult part of my day. There were times when I didn’t even do that, days I didn’t leave the house.
One morning, I remember back, I hadn’t showered in almost a week. I found myself sickly attracted to my own smell. The scent of sadness, a sweet yet fetid reek that filled my pajamas, my sheets, and my nose. I couldn’t stop smelling it. I liked it. It smelled like I felt: rancid, rotten, dead. When I finally did shower, I watched the water run the old skin and stink off my body into the drain. I wanted to go too, to sink into the abyss of the plumbing.
Depression is a bitch. For me it means being incredibly functional during the day, coming home, getting high, and crying into my pillow at night. Depression means working each day towards nothing. The hopelessness of the never-ending, never helping cycle.
I’m a social worker and I see the same clients everyday. They all have different names, different lives, but they are all the same. They never stop coming in, never stop needing care. I can’t figure out if I’m helping or harming, but either way I’m hurting and it sucks.
I set up the wood in a pyramid and stuffed the inside with dry leaves and a bit of lint I collected from the cabin’s dryer. I fed it small tinder until the flames grew large enough to combat the wind and ignite the larger logs. The blaze grabbed for my face as I snuck closer to warm my frozen nose.
“I can’t take it anymore,” I whisper to no one. “I can’t do it any longer.”
I can sense myself going to that dark place. The one that questions whether I want to step into the fire and let it take me to wherever I came from. The voice that asks if I’m ready to stop, to leave behind this thoughtless place.
I can feel the tears beginning to form, but they don’t fall. They haven’t truly shed in weeks now. I’ve grown tired of the failed release of crying. I’ve become jaded against my own emotions. They don’t suite me, or perhaps, I’m not understanding them correctly.
I put my hands in my jacket pockets to keep the tips from freezing off. There’s something warm in one and I pull it out to find the unskipped rock. It’s smooth and running my finger along the edge puts me at some rest.
“What do I do, rock?” I ask. “How do I stop this feeling? These feelings, of wanting to be dead. It keeps coming up, and I can’t get the thought from my head.”
I’m not sure what I was expecting. Some wisdom or life-changing messages? I placed the stone on my forehead hoping to absorb some earthly understanding.
I’m interrupted by an intruder. She’s young and looks cold as she takes a seat by the fire.
“Umm… Hi. Do I know you?” I ask. I can’t tell if I’m perturbed at the woman’s arrival, or blessed by it.
“You don’t. Not really, but can I keep warm?” She points to the fire, which has impressed me with its stamina. The wind is still blowing hard.
“I suppose so,” welcoming her. “Interested in a shot?”
“Ooh, whatcha got?”
“I’m a whiskey woman myself, but there’s vodka in there too.”
“I’ll join you for a whiskey, certainly.”
“Great,” and I head into the cabin to get the bottle. There aren’t any shot glasses so we would have to make do with a couple of tin camping mugs. I take off out the door, surprised I didn’t wake Zeph.
“Here you go, it’s all I’ve got,” I say handing the cup over. She takes it gently and I marvel at her long delicate fingers.
We sip and make small talk about the burn of the alcohol and the fierceness of the wind.
“You know how to handle blustery nights like this, right?” She asks me.
“Pick up a stick, any stick, and hold it, upright, against the wind.” She picks up a random piece of timber and with two hands grasps it out in front of her.
“With confidence say, ‘Wind, I command you to stop!'” Nothing happened, and so she handed me the branch to try.
I laughed. There’s no way, but screw it, what do I have to lose?
I hold the stick just as she did and clear my throat.
“Wind. I command you to stop!”
Nothing. My guest laughs.
“You can’t say it like that! Be assertive, forceful even. Do you know the power of wind?”
“Ok,” I say turning the stick in my hands. “Let’s try this again. Wind… I command that you stop.”
And it does.
There’s an eerie silence to the lake. The fire rises high, no longer challenged by the gale. I stop.
“What just happened?”
A smile creeps onto the young woman’s face. It’s an unsettling smile, the one you might imagine a killer giving to his victim.
“You took your power.”
I pull the stick closer and see that it is not just a random twig from the pile, but a long, thin, mangled wand suddenly painted all black. It is segmented with several knuckles. Some of them broken, twisted bones etched onto the top. It’s smooth and is covered with some sort of well worn cloth at one end.
“What is this?”
“My finger.” She laughs. Unsettling. She lifts the hood from her head and I can see that she has no other skin but her face. I can see all the bones of her spine, the skull masked by youth. What’s more, I notice she is missing an ear.
That whiskey must have me pretty far gone. There’s no way this is real.
“Wha.. wha.. wha…”
“Ha! Yeah, that’s what they all say.” She pulls up her hood again and shivers as thought the endeavor had actually chilled her.
“What in the hell is going on here?
“No hell, come on. We all live everywhere around here.”
“There’s no heaven or hell like they always say, that’s just some shit humans made up. I’m different and apart from any system like that.”
She’s talking in riddles and I can’t keep up. Heaven? Hell? Humans?
“What are you talking about? Who are you then?”
“Death! Come on, you knew that!” She’s laughing at me.
“I thought death lived in hell?”
“What kind of sense does that make? Don’t you have to die to get to heaven?”
I suppose she’s right.
“Death lives in everything. Some people call me the great shadow. I sneak up on you both when you see me coming and when you don’t.”
Made sense since she had just appeared out of nowhere tonight as well.
“So, wait… Does this mean I’m dying?”
“That’s what you asked for wasn’t it?”
I let the drink fall from my hand. Thankfully it was empty, it would be a shame to spill booze on Death.
How had she known? Were the untempered emotions written on my face? Did Death have the key to my diary?
“No,” she said, clearly able to read my mind. “You whispered it into my ear.”
I remembered the rock in my pocket. It was still warm. I rubbed the edge to calm my nerves.
“Hey! Don’t do that,” she said touching the space where her ear should be. “That tickles.”
I threw the stone to the ground, upset and disgusted. She picked it up, placing it in her pocket.
“I’ll put that on later. One less thing to freeze out here.”
She put her feet up on the rim of the fire pit. They were bare and again, only bones. She roasted them against the flames, careful not to get too close. Odd, since the ring she rested them on must have been blistering.
She leaned over, chuckling at my thoughts, and took the finger wand from my lap.
“Don’t want this to end up getting tossed too.” And she placed it her pocket with the stone.
I’m stunned and don’t know what to say. I want to leave, to go find Zeph. If it’s my last night on Earth, I want to spend it with him by my side.
“Can I see my dog before I go?” Those tears that had withheld themselves earlier were making another appearance. “Is it possible? Please?”
“Go? Go where? I’m just here to talk and keep warm. Oh, and get my ear back.”
“Yeah man, talk. It seems like you have a lot going on. You must know me pretty well, you wish for me all the time. Tell me what’s going on.”
I can’t lie, she seems to know everything anyway. After some hesitation, I begin to unravel the ills of my life, the problem of my emotions, and my deep empty feeling. Death listens silently, adding in a ‘Hmm,’ or ‘Right, right’ now and then. She scratched her chin when I finished and looked at me. Her eyes were real. I wondered to what they were attached.
“So, I guess I don’t understand where the want to die comes in? You aren’t even half way through this story.”
“Come on, you know. The story. The hero fails and falls. Then he hears the call and falls some more. That’s when it gets really good, he almost gives up, but he triumphs in the end.”
“What does that have to do with me?”
“Hero, heroine, herothey’m?”
“So I’m the hero?”
“Kid, you are in your own story! You’re the friggin’ lead.” Death chuckled.
“What is it that I’m meant to triumph over?
“Oh, come on. That’s simple. Yourself of course. The only true defeat is when you stop writing. If this is your story, the plot goes forward because of you. Anything you do is a twist, or a turn. Yes, outside things will happen, but you are ultimately the one who owns the right to claim victory or failure. Nothing is permanent, trust me in that.”
And, I did. How could you not trust death to be the most knowledgable in the reality of impermanence.
“So, you’re suggesting..?”
“I’m suggesting kid, that you listen to your heart while your head hangs that low. Can’t you hear it beating? When does it beat faster? Where and what are you doing when the thumping turns from fear to future? Who does your heart want you to be and why?
“That’s exactly what I don’t know,” I retort, the tears welling in my eyes again.
“Of course you don’t,” says Death cooly. “Nobody does. You think humans just inherently know how to utilize their skills in the most efficient way possible? No – humans don’t know shit. They do what they’re told most of the time, which is likely why you’re struggling so much.”
“Because I do what I’m told?” I feel offended by her judgement. I have tried hard to break away from the mould of normalcy, to separate myself from other’s expectations.
“Oh yeah? And how has that worked?” I forgot, she reads minds.
“Look,” she continues, “you’re always trying to follow in someone else’s path, while internally screaming about being unique. You are your own leader. Get out there and create some more plot. Forget about the other books and stick to writing your own.”
I hear Zeph stretch and groan on the bed inside. He jumps from his spot to pad outside and find me, but stops in the doorframe staring at Death. With a small whine he stands confused on what’s happening. Death barked at the dog, sending him flying through the small cabin and back to his spot on the bed.
“Scared him shitless, huh,” she says with a laugh.
I think on all that Death has said here tonight, think of my story and writing my path out of misery. She was right. As much as I’ve tried to be an individual, I’ve followed the steps of others which has gotten me tightly wound in someone else’s book.
Death stands and hands me her empty tin cup.
“Thanks for the spirits!”
“You’re leaving?” I ask.
“Yup, you don’t need me here anymore. You’ve got everything you need to succeed.”
“And, you’re not taking me with you?”
“Nah, that wouldn’t be any good. You’re not living in some tragedy. One last thing though.”
“Remember that to fight, one needs a sword, and not all swords are iron and brimstone. And, in every good story, there’s a villain. Find yours and defeat them.”
“And what the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“It means whatever you want it to mean, it’s your story.”
I put the empty cups on a table by the door and walked Death around to the front to leave.
“I expect the next time we meet, you won’t so easily let me sit by your fire?” Death says cooly, giving me a gentle but boney hug.
“Next time? Is that when I’ll..?” Despite my previous wish for it, the thought now seems jarring to me. “How old will I be?”
“I dunno!” She laughs. “As I’ve said, I’m Death. I see life, not the future. The future is only a dream. No death in dreaming.”
And with that, away she went
I walked back around to the fire, which was still going though the wind had begun to pick up again. I sat down in it’s orange light thinking about all that had occurred here this evening. I wanted to reach out to someone, tell them that I had just met The Reaper and she was a foul-mouthed, whiskey drinking, mask-wearing badass. No one would believe me.
I stood to put the fire out when I saw it, laying innocently on the seat. The dark stick stuck out brightly against the whiteness of the chair and the glow of the fire flickered making each knuckle pop with vibrance. The wand. Death’s finger.
I picked it up, held it upright against the growing blow of the breeze.
“Wind, I command you to stop!”
And it did.