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All We Truly Know
The day I met Death, he took my breath away.
There he stood before me, weaponless and wearing a long black coat that brushed gently across the ground as the breeze playfully rustled with the flawlessly hemmed edges. If I had to guess what Death would look like, I would have imagined the typical stereotype with the hideous, eternally grinning skeletal countenance and serrated scythe, complete with a tattered robe and long scraggly white hair streaked with grey, as we all have known Death to look like. Now I knew differently.
There he stood, looking like a god, truly an angel of death, with his skin as white as ashes and his long, ebony hair curling around his elongated, triangular face and his slender shoulders, thin stands gently floating across his face. His face had only one curious blemish, a crescent moon shaped scar on his left cheek that contrasted greatly with his otherwise perfect skin. His eyes were as black as his hair, and no, they were not cold, but instead burned with such an intensity that I could not tear my gaze away.
He smiled as he saw my reaction to his appearance, his pale pink lips curling over his gleaming white teeth and his eyes sparkling as he understood that I knew who he was. I was standing by the bus stop nearest to my tiny apartment in New York City in the winter, the traffic not too busy but not too sporadic, either. I had gotten into a terrible fight with my husband earlier that morning and was feeling miserable because of it. Death stood across the street, in front of my neighbor Mary Baker's tiny caf', smiling angelically at me but with a subtle undertone of warning behind the smile. A rare butterfly that was brave enough to weather the winter flew by, momentarily entrancing me with the vibrant and gorgeous colors of its wings. It seemed to be a breath of fresh air after being surrounded constantly by dull-colored snow that had fallen early this year. But the feeling faded quickly. Looking back at Death, I saw him beckon, and strangely I felt my feet instinctively obeying, my head turning both ways to watch for traffic, then my legs running swiftly as I crossed the street. No one seemed to notice that he existed, yet they noticed me. At least I was still human.
'Yama,' he said, looking deep into my eyes, seeming to analyze the very depths of my soul. My breathing grew shallow and rushed.
'I'm sorry?' I gasped, confused yet still taken by this strange creature before me.
'Yama,' he repeated, uttering every syllable with exact precision, 'That is your name. Yama, the first to die. Abeo ut primoris.'
I shuddered at this chilling sentiment. The night of Halloween 10 years ago flashed in my mind. Was he angry that I had been snatched from his grasp by my wonderful husband, a doctor, who had saved and healed me?
He took my arm and walked into Maria's caf'. The pungent smell of deliciously brewed coffee greeted me. The shop was deserted and Maria was nowhere to be seen, probably in the back taking a break. I wondered silently if Death influenced Fate, or if it was a mere coincidence.
'I know Fate quite well, actually. Forgive me, I should correct myself: The Fates are good friends of mine,' he said smiling, as shock registered on my face. 'I presume you have heard the Greek tale of the Moirae, the three sisters who spun, measured, and cut the thread of Life? I must say, it is so nice to be able to chat with someone so knowledgeable of Greek legends, a doctor in Greek mythology no less. Tell me, in all those years of study, how often did you secretly wish the stories were real?'
How could he possibly read my mind and know so much about me? I reminded myself that being Death, capable of altering the thin thread between life and death, he could likely do a great number of things I did not know about. But if the Fates existed, how did he exist, when Atropos was the one who decided when their life would end? How easily he would consider taking someone's life away when to that someone, it was all that he truly had.
'The Fates and I exist simultaneously, as you now know, and I am Death, or Thanatos, the son of Erebus and Nix. I am the Herald of the Moirae, the one who brings the message of Death to their victims. I also am the Deliverer of Death, so I am not merely a simple messenger. In fact, I am here on behalf of my sisters, the Keres, since I pity you and wish for you to die in the most peaceful way possible, despite the Keres' fury. They would prefer that you were shredded to pieces before their very eyes, but they were placated by my vow that I would kill you in the same spot in which you were supposed to have already died. My only condition was that you would be killed as I saw fit.
'I read the souls of my victims, know their most treasured memories, their deepest desires, and their most terrible secrets. And I know all of yours, my dear,' he said, his eyes piercing me to my core, rendering me frozen as if made of stone while he smiled mockingly. 'They are all very good, I must admit. Your tale has been very rich and intricate, with a full and happy life, not tarnished with much horror ' except for that one night. In the Age of Technology, you have been both saved and cursed, as with the rest of mankind living in these times.
'You remember the night of which I speak,' he said quietly as we sat down at a table, his words a confirmation, not a threat, merely a reminder of the events that had occurred. 'The screams, the agony, the torment. And yet you were not released from it in the intended manner.'
So he was angry. How strange this was, to be discussing my demise that never came to pass with Death in a coffee shop. Suddenly his eyes no longer sparkled; in fact, they were dark and cold. I now trembled when I looked at them. The smirk he previously allowed had also vanished, replaced by a dark, unpenetrable stare.
'Tomorrow is promised to no one,' he whispered almost inaudibly, searching my soul once again with his now pitiless eyes as I sat there shaking.
Up to this point, his threats had seemed surreal, and I had felt more curiosity than fear. But no more. Now I was no longer sure of my life. I did not know how much time I had left after sitting here with Death in this lonely, dimly lit coffee shop. Time seemed to be shrinking away from me with every breath, deserting me as he scrutinized my very being with me sitting there without a single defense or a shred of hope. I became acutely aware that I might never see my husband and my beautiful daughters again. There was nothing remotely emotional about killing for him. It was his job. Why would he pity me in the slightest?
'Oh, you have the ability to see them again, of course. I am not that cruel.' He was smiling again, I noticed with a sinking heart. 'Free will is essential. How you see them again, not if you will see them again (since that is already ensured), is your choice. I will not be so merciless as to take away your ability to choose.'
With a sudden increase in my already quickened heartbeat, I realized I truly had no choice at all, at least, not from where I stood. Humans knew nothing about life after death. Offering me the choice to see them through being a spirit, seeing them in heaven, or seeing them through the flashbacks that only occurred before death was of no use to me. Perhaps Death knew; of course he knew, but I did not, a mere human who could not see the future, who could not read minds and souls, and who did not know even the slightest thing about what death really was. I did not believe in reincarnation (or at least did not know of it, if it did indeed exist), so I was left with only two options, neither of which I was prepared to choose. I wanted life, but I knew there was no such option. Either way, I was not going to see my family again in my lifetime. He grinned even more broadly as he realized that I had formed this conclusion.
'You cannot always have your way where you should not. Your husband saved you once, and I granted you 10 more years of life since he outsmarted me so cleverly and I enjoyed that immensely, but now your time is up. Your demise awaits, and your destiny shall be completed as it rightfully would have.'
He stood up and effortlessly pulled me to my feet -- gently, but with force. He guided me with ease to the curb outside where I had first seen him, where a black van was waiting filled with a young female driver and two other young female passengers, obviously Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, and two other older women, but strangely no less beautiful, who must be the Keres. Death opened the door for me and I crawled in, the only mortal in the car with six extremely beautiful immortals.
Death, the three Fates, and the two Keres who had intended me to die in a violent car crash that fateful night 10 years ago put the human race's standards of beauty to shame. As pale as Death, the Moirae and the Keres all had black, piercing eyes and long, wavy hair, though the Keres' were grey and the Moirae were still black. Their triangular faces were unfriendly and cruel, but no doubt they were angry and wanted to see their wishes fulfilled. Atropos drove, her cold eyes watching vigilantly so I would not die before my specified time, keeping a slow but steady speed as we headed out of the city to the spot where my death would have been realized years ago.
It was a most curious thing, to contemplate my impending death as we drove. Perhaps this is why God had not allowed us all to completely see the future, allowing some who worked at it to do so but keeping the rest of us in the dark, so we did not go crazy with thoughts of how long we would keep breathing and how long we had to think about the memories we cherished the most that would not define us anymore. But why would God not allow us to know of the point of our death when that would inspire us to live our time on Earth to the fullest extent? Perhaps it was the experience of living and growing, physically, emotionally, and intellectually. If we knew the exact time in which we were to pass from the realm of the living, would we still feel the craving to make ourselves better people, to learn everything we possibly could, and to enjoy facing hardships and overcoming them? Perhaps not. Some of us would follow the old Latin saying of carpe diem, but some would merely squander their lives, waiting grimly for their expiration date since they dreaded it so completely. I would never know which category I would be placed.
Deep in thought, I did not realize that we were very near to my execution site, the godforsaken strip of land so far away from New York City, the city I called home and where my family lived peacefully, unaware that I was going swiftly to my doom. Then there it was, the familiar billboard advertising cliff-diving lessons and swimming with dolphins in the ocean next to the city in which I lived, both of which I remembered I had always wanted to try and a jarring contrast to the seriousness of my situation. Atropos pulled over in front of the billboard, the exact location where I had sat 10 years previously, severely injured and completely unconscious. All six lovely faces turned toward me, waiting for my reaction. My gaze moved from each immortal face to another, finally resting on Death.
'Why? Why now' I managed to croak, my eyes finally begging him for another chance at life.
The Keres smiled gleefully, clearly enjoying my terror and my lack of defense against such an inexorable fate. One of the Keres said maliciously, 'You outsmarted both my sister and me, not to mention my brother and the Moirae, and you will not do it again, we will make sure of that.'
I sat for another minute contemplating this and asked one last desperate question. 'But why me? You are outwitted by surgery and medicine, the results of modern technology, every day. Why must I pay the price for that?'
All of the immortals laughed maniacally (the Keres most of all) and Atropos asked sneeringly, 'Are you saying that you would rather have someone else be sacrificed for your cheating of our will, your husband or daughters, perhaps? How very selfless of you!'
I shook my head desperately, but they just laughed harder. Turning to Death, I silently pleaded with him to calm them in hopes that I could convince them of my point. Agreeing to this last condition, he held up his hand and the other five immortals fell silent, eyeing him slightly crossly for spoiling their fun too early. But he did not let me speak.
'My dear, your time is now,' he asserted gently, truly proving himself to be the god of peaceful death, unlike his sisters, 'Others will meet their deaths when the time comes like you are meeting yours now.'
Resigning myself to the death technology could not save me from this time, I forced myself to become calm and embrace my final moments, ironically surrounded by the familiar beings I had in some way spent my life with. As I opened my door to take one last look at the sunset, I stopped abruptly as I heard Eva Cassidy's magnificent version of 'What A Wonderful World,' the song I had played at my wedding and the song I now knew I wanted played at my funeral. My eyes welling up with tears, I stepped outside to enjoy my last breaths of fresh air as a living being. The wind was crisp and clear and the sunset was absolutely stunning, the sky a brilliant myriad of colors. It was not quite a perfect ending, since my husband and daughters were not with me, but it was more than I could have ever asked for. Ten years more.