The Burden of Death

Here’s a story I had previously written, which I just realized was already the perfect length for #300WordThursday.

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Contrary to popular belief, the Angel of Death’s appointment book is written mostly in pencil. Few human beings have their times fixed at the moment of birth. Were it not so, the Grim Reaper’s work would be far simpler than it is.

Were it not so, what reason would there be for anyone to face a final confrontation with the dark-cloaked figure who is tasked with leading them to their final rest? If they had no choice, Death could come always like a thief in the night, snatching their souls with his bony fingers while staying deaf to their protests.

But instead, Death faces the eternal burden of balancing the scales of life on the Earth and in the Beyond. His thankless task is to judge the fate of every individual who steps to the edge of the void and now struggles to remain in a world of light.

Every moment is a choice from among possible futures. Arguments and counterarguments are presented through countless millions of dreams and regrets, and the Angel of Death pours over them all. He beholds the suffocating child’s desire to begin, for at least one moment, to comprehend the world around her before she must leave it. He weighs it against the elderly man’s hard won appreciation for life and his earnest need to embrace his wife just one more time.

He hears the pleas of those who planned their futures step by step and realized too late that they hadn’t lived while there was time. And he hears them mirrored in the self-recriminations of those who lived too much, too soon, and found themselves suddenly teetering on the brink of the grave.

And frequently unable to reconcile it all, Death closes his eyes, swings his scythe, and resolves to let fall what may.

All Welcome!

I’d like to start consistently writing a 200 word piece of flash fiction each Tuesday and a 300 word piece each Thursday. I don’t know if the word counts will always be exact, but this one is. And I don’t know if I’ll follow through, but this is at least a start for #200WordTuesday.

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William chose his church as one might choose any other consumer good: by its packaging. Driving aimlessly on country roads one Sunday morning, he spotted a sign that proclaimed, “God is wherever the suffering is.”

“Then why haven’t I seen him?” William sniffed. But curious at the answer a preacher might offer, he pulled into the parking lot, entered the building, and found a seat in the pews.

When ushers began drawing a chain across the door, William stood up in alarm. The congregation stood as well, for it was then that the priest took his place at the altar.

“Good morning,” he said. “I see some new faces in the congregation. Welcome. I assume you have felt that the presence of God is missing from your lives. Well, brothers and sisters… do you wish to hear His voice, perhaps even see His face?”

Despite his bafflement, William found himself joining the parishioners in intoning, “We do.”

“Then you must truly suffer. Not just the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, but the exquisite, transformative torment of martyrs.”

At that, a grim cacophony of steel erupted at the back of the church, as ushers began dragging something up the aisle.

At the Bottom of the Glass

Champagne picnic at The Vyne, Hampshire.

She didn’t much care for the taste of champagne, but the bubbles felt wonderful on her tongue. The entire picnic had been lovely, and when her boyfriend popped the cork and toasted to their love, she felt like a princess. Steadily, dutifully, she emptied her glass, cringing slightly at the acrid taste but also silently giggling at the sensation.

She closed her eyes to tip the last of the liquid into her mouth and then heard the gentle clink of something falling against the inside of the glass. Looking down over her nose, she saw something gleaming more brightly than the sun-soaked stemware. Her heart skipped a beat.

She lowered the glass to get a better look at the ring, then gazed past it to see her boyfriend leaning toward her upon one knee, smiling. He freed her hands of the glass, held the ring out to her, and with the air of an antique gentleman asked, “Will you do the honor of being my bride?”

The proposal caught her by surprise before she had swallowed the last sip of champagne, so when she gasped she also began to cough. Neither she nor he was quite sure whether the tears in her eyes were from the overwhelming emotion or the shortness of breath. But she smiled despite the discomfort and fanned her face with her hand before laying her fingers across her breast. “Oh my God, yes!” she said, then paused to cough before repeating, “Yes!”

She went on trying to stifle her coughing fit as he slipped the ring onto her finger. It fit perfectly, and as she admired it the rest of the world went hazy as if she had slipped into a dream. Her heart beat erratically and she positively swooned at the thought of the life that lay ahead for them. At the same time, rather than abating, her coughing intensified. She struggled to compose herself and looked to her boyfriend for reassurance. She found him still smiling. It seemed strange that his expression hadn’t changed a bit, but she thought nothing of it.

She steeled herself for one large, cleansing breath but found that she could get no air in. The impulse to cough persisted, but now there was nothing for her lungs to expel. Her face turned red and her eyes bulged. Her boyfriend, still wearing the same smile, now held her hand. He said nothing but caressed her skin and thought, “It will all be over soon.”

And so it was. Following an afternoon of joy and a minute of discomfort, the poor girl passed into peaceful oblivion. He reclaimed the ring from her finger, replaced it in the box among the other tablets, and carefully cleaned the residual poison and champagne off his hands. As he folded the picnic blanket into a neat square, he basked in a feeling of pride. His play acting had brought such pleasure to this girl’s life, and her death had brought such pleasure to his. She had died happy and now he was free to start over again.

The ring had served him well this afternoon, as it had served him well last year. And it would do so again months from now, after he inevitably captured the hard of another sad, lonely young woman, desperate for the sort of love that could carry her to another world.

The Vengeance

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By the time the coastline came into view, none of the crew could quite recall how long they had been at sea. They had come to measure the passage of time only by counting battles. And after months without making landfall, they had become the terror of all Spanish vessels in the New World. Hardly a man had been lost, and yet red crosses fell to the water like berries from a shaken tree.

The enemy crews would not surrender, yet they would not willingly fight, either. As soon as the black banner was raised, Spanish ships, whatever their class or armament, would flee in panic. And when the pirates boarded, that same panic was evident on the face of every man, even well-trained and seasoned soldiers. Yet every crew fought with blind zealotry, until their ships burned and sank into the sea.

The crew of the Vengeance was unconcerned with saving the cargo from their quarries. All this slaughter was only in service of reaching their destination, where the map proclaimed an unfathomable fortune awaited. And after battles that seemed more numerous than the stars in the sky, their captain declared they had found the spot, and ordered the crew ashore to dig.

They followed the map to a clearing but could not be sure of the precise location of the cache, nor its size. The men spread out and began to dig until all at once several of them announced a discovery: not wooden chests or loose stacks of gold bars, but the stinking remains of sailors with musket balls in their skulls and cutlass marks upon their bones.

Undeterred, they continued to dig and continued to turn up more corpses whose clothing, though badly decayed, struck the men as familiar. When the full extent of the mass grave came into view, some men began to whisper that the numbers in this slaughtered crew seemed to match their own. And as the whispers spread throughout the camp, a shared memory soon followed: a memory of having been in this place before, of having previously dug upon the same spot, of having looked up from the bottom of the pit to see the sneering faces of Spanish privateers who held their muskets at the ready in that moment before the crew of the Vengeance fell bleeding together and began to feel the dirt raining down upon them.

Standing in a circle around the uncovered bodies, the crew looked around at one another’s sallow faces and found that suddenly, the terror of their enemy crews made more sense. So too did their own seeming invincibility, as well as the map’s promise of a treasure that could not be quantified: the treasure of freedom.

Speaking Eyes

I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed re-interpreting classic works, as I had done in a few blog posts months ago. Then I came across the following anonymous Victorian poem.

Speaking Eyes

Here is my attempt to emulate it with a somewhat darker theme:

There’s anemic, jaundiced chatter

Unconcerned with joy or strife

That’s dispelled by language from your eyes,

Filled with ardent thirst for life.

 

In the abyss before and after

Human tastes of wind and fire,

No one waits to know, much less to meet

Our insatiable desire.

 

An infant, unfamiliar with

Its new, corporeal jail,

Must punctuate an unseen glance

With a mighty, futile wail.

 

There’s a demon will beneath it

And through youth it gains in power

‘Til it meets the gaze of servants

Like they’re stood beneath a tower.

 

And through labor in its presence

They shall win a cherished prize

In the passion both consumed and grown

By the hunger of speaking eyes.

Ruler

You’ve probably heard horror stories about people who have attended Catholic school. Stories of sadistic nuns acting as the ironic enforcers of righteousness and wielding wooden rulers as weapons. It’s all true, though of course some teachers were more sadistic than others, and some had altogether different expectations of righteousness.

As a young teenage girl, naturally I resented the harsh, seemingly arbitrary punishment that I suffered at Sister Dina’s hand. But in time I came to appreciate the self-discipline and the sense of devotion that she instilled in me.

A wooden ruler may not seem like much of an implement of torment, but directed at a young woman’s knuckles with expert precision, over and over again, it yielded the most exquisite pain. Each rap built exponentially upon the last, and the constant needling sensation eventually came to settle into the depths of my mind, more so than upon my hand.

The most remarkable thing about this, I came to find, was the effect that it had on my concentration during long periods of enforced discipline. Writing lines is, of course, the other stereotypical Catholic school punishment, and Sister Dina was as fond of it as she was of meting out pain. In fact, the hours spent sitting alone with her and writing lines were painful in their own right.

Add to that the throbbing that intensified in my knuckles with every mistake she perceived, and I soon found myself positively entranced by the pain. In one particularly brutal session, Sister Dina’s abuse gradually drew blood from my hands, and I dare say that my soul left my body so as to cope with the assignment without incurring still more of her wrath.

It was at the conclusion of that punishment that my perception of this brutal taskmistress instantly shifted from resentment from admiration. I could not even account for how long I had been writing; I had been so engrossed in the repetition that I’d abandoned all awareness of what I was doing with my hands. I looked down to see my own blood mingling with the pen strokes in tiny splashes.

Punctuated with the blood and standing neatly between the lines, I discovered the words “I reject the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” filling one page after another. Panicked tightness seized my chest for a moment before I looked up at Sister Dina, who was leaning imposingly over my desk clutching her innocent-looking weapon. Contrary to all expectations, her face wore an unnatural-looking grin as she peered deep into my eyes. “You’ve done well,” she declared with obvious pride. “You have always been my best pupil.”

Closet Check

I was struggling to come up with something to write today, and I decided to fall back on my Twitter fiction by expanding one of my oldest “nano horror” stories into a flash fiction piece of about 450 words.

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A Painful Routine

We had all lived so long in the dungeon that we knew no other mode of existence. Suffering was our lot, and each of us in our own time came to accept it. Some of us may even have learned to admire the merciless hand of our tormentor, who came among us with clockwork regularity, masked and silent, to mete out lashings and incisions, to scald our skin or stretch our joints to their limits, and generally to punish us in accordance with our past crimes and our conduct as prisoners.

The justification for these punishments was never expressed, but we knew them well. With a long moment’s reflection, each of us could ascribe the proper meaning to our agony. In this way, we learned not to protest, much less to actively resist. And for our understanding we were rewarded. Despite his anonymity, we recognized our steadfast tormentor by his eyes, and we saw in them recognition of our compliance. And possessed of that keen awareness, there came a time when he loosed us from our chains, never to reattach them again.

The implements of our torture hung on walls of the dungeon, but we never imagined using our newfound freedom of movement in order to impede their use. In fact, we simply endeavored to never think of them until the appointed time, averting our eyes until the outer door creaked open and spurred us to readiness. Thereafter we practiced camaraderie by crying out in common, by gritting our teeth for one another as the recoil of the whip rang throughout the room. Each time the warden was done with his somber work, a tray of food was presented to each of us, and we ate to restore our strength so the pain could later resume without destroying us.

As I say, this all went on for long enough that the memories of an earlier time had grown clouded and devoid of identity. But one day, as we were taking our food, our tormentor hung his mask upon the wall beside his tools, departed the room with his characteristic silence – a thing we’d come to regard as a kind of comfort – and never returned. I cannot say how long we waited there. Up until then, the physical ordeals were the only things that had marked the passage of hours. But eventually, for the first time any of us could recall, the feeling of hunger began to overtake the all-encompassing, residual ache of former torture.

It steadily became clear that our warden was not to return. Neither, of course, was the food that had always followed him. It also became clear to me that one person among us would have to step forward to lead. Being of a stronger constitution and a keener mind than the others, the responsibility fell to me. Rising from my place within the dungeon, I walked purposively to that wall that had always been off limits to us. After donning the warden’s abandoned mask, I tried the door and found it open. And upon cautiously checking the hall, I steeled myself with confidence and ventured off to find food for myself and my comrades.

When I returned, still masked, with a tray for each of us, the prisoners trembled visibly and assumed the usual position. I gazed for a moment upon the frightful tools that adorned the wall, and it occurred to me that after all this time, I knew exactly what to do with them.