Most people say they hate their jobs. And sometimes, they have a good reason. Low pay for high hours, irritable bosses, obnoxious co-workers, always being the last person in the morning to get coffee so, by the time you get to the machine, only bitter dregs are left. Yeah, that sucks.
But I am one of the few that can honestly say I hate my job. I'm on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks out of the year and I don't get vacation time. My customers always complain; it's like they aren't happy to see me. It's not that there aren't any good days; terminally ill folks in hospitals are usually glad to see me, but they're the rare ones.
Today was not one of those good days.
It was a car accident victim this afternoon. Thomas Villars was his name and he--or, more correctly--his soul was arguing with me why he had to stay alive. He was under the surgeon's knife, and my plans had him bleeding to death from some of those long insipid medical terms that I have no use for.
"I have three kids!" he begged.
"Your wife knows how to raise them. Besides, she's been raising them practically by herself since they were born. Just one more hour at the office, right Tom? One more drink with the guys, one more weekend of missed baseball games and piano recitals. Shall I go on?"
Thomas' soul flinched from that barb. Couldn't say I was sorry; I had a stint at an abortion clinic yesterday and twelve hours scooping up a cornucopia of confused, mewling newborn souls had not improved my temper.
"I always provided for them," Thomas' soul said, rallying from my sally. "At least they always had food on the table, clothes on their back-"
"And a loaf on the couch. Oh wait, that'd be you. Besides, after you die, your wife will be able to paint like she's always wanted to do with the lovely life insurance policy your decease will provide and I can guarantee you right now that some art galleries in town will buy her work. I liked the one she did while you were dating--Fuchsia Transcendence, right?"
I yawned as the babble of begging continued. Thomas had run out of excuses. They all do.
A moment later, a shrill alarm sounded in the operating room. There was a flurry of activity, but it was too late.
The head surgeon closed his eyes briefly. "He's gone."
Such is my life and my name is Death.
For kicks sometimes I allow the ones nearing the Eternal Brink a glimpse of me. Since I don't really have a physical form, I can choose any way I want to appear. For the sweet old lady whose heart just stops when she's reaching for her handbag, I'll be the old man who, with a gentlemanly bow, lifts her soul from the shell of her body. For the greedy gobbler who chokes to death while trying to masticate a pound of ground hamburger between two plate-sized buns, I find that the human notion of the Grim Reaper works quite nicely. Those are the fleeting moments when the bridge between life and my world are joined and the poor mortal stares in horror, yellow flecks of mustard clinging to his cheeks and teeth.
Eventually, they are all my guests. Every man, woman, child no matter how important, famous, rich, loved, unloved, hypocritical, or honest will meet me.
But there was a moment in the long years of my career when I was thwarted. I can't remember the dates that mortals now use to note their history. But it was a very long time ago in the part of the world known as the Middle East.
This particular week I had snatched one of the humans from a long illness. Little did he know that his illness would be curable one thousand years later. Anyway, this individual wasn't anything special, one beetle among millions. It was a live one that caught my attention several days after the ill one's death. He strode through the miasma of mourners, some professional, others genuine to get to the tomb. Once there, he touched the stone gently and wept openly into his hands.
Big deal. Not anything I hadn't seen before countless times. He turned to two women-sisters to the dead man I think-and spoke. I was beginning to get bored when the crowd grew silent as a handful of men pulled the stone away from the entrance to the grave. The graves in those days weren't as pretty as the mahogany caskets of later generations, but they did the job.
"Now what are they doing?" I wondered out loud, not that anyone could hear me anyway. The man who had wept suddenly turned and looked straight at me. At least, he appeared to, because no mortal man can see Death and live. I wandered away, not interested in whatever the mourners were trying to do, but as I tried to do so, a feeling like I had never experienced before suddenly snatched my breath away--in a manner of speaking. It felt like what humans describe as getting the wind knocked out of them and as I realized what had happened, the screams began.
Impossibly, a figure wrapped in burial shrouds stepped cautiously out of the tomb. Women shrieked, men stared until the man that had wept, his face wreathed in smiles, directed them to stop staring and help unbind the guy.
For the first time in my existence, I was too surprised to do anything. The unthinkable had happened; someone, one of mine, had been taken from me and given a second life. In the hollow space of my incredulity, I heard, no--felt-His smile.
To say that I was disturbed was the understatement of the millennia. I had no prior experience for what had just happened, so I went to the only other expert in my field: Sleep. I think it was the mortal known as Shakespeare who described Sleep as "death's second self." A remarkably astute human that Shakespeare. How he found out, I'll never know, but I used to be the "second self." Being Sleep isn't much more interesting than being Death, but no one complains when they sleep--which is a bonus. The old Death had traded positions with me long ago, hundreds of years before the Man that Wept walked the earth and he knew the ins and outs of the trade as well as I did.
So I went to Sleep with my problem. His droopy face looked troubled when I described what happened.
"It's happened before?" I asked, incredulous.
"Yes," he finally admitted, looking disturbed. "Several times... Don't worry, Death. They all came back to me eventually."
As there was a war in what is now Western Turkey, I was busy for several days after and I was content with Sleep's advice and eventually forgot about what was stolen from me.
Then it happened again. It was the same area of the Middle East and the same man. This time it was a teenager. He was the only son of his widowed mother and then he had the stupidity to fall and crack his head open. Though his soul mourned for his mother, he died like any normal human.
Then He came. The coffin was being carried to the place of entombment when the Man that Wept came up, touched the coffin and spoke to it. Again, the feeling of something sucked from my insides and I was speechless. This couldn't be happening! Yet, the coffin was opened and the teenaged boy hugged his mother as they both sobbed for joy.
It didn't stop there. Next a little girl, than a man again, then another child and grown woman. Why? Why were they all given a second chance? Why were these souls ripped from my grasp when they would only return to me again? Who was this upstart who came and stole what was rightly mine? Sleep was no help to me. I went back but he cowered away into his refuge of dreams.
I determined to follow the Man. As far as I could tell, he too was mortal and would die… and then I would have him! I am not cruel; I'm Death, it's my job, but I must admit a preference for peaceful death over violent ones, though no mortal has a choice in these matters. But I really wanted to meet Him, to finally feel some control over the fates of all mortals like I once had. I have been at this job for hundreds of years, and am patient. It was only a matter of time.
Finally, to my relief, it appeared to be imminent. I do not concern myself with the affairs of humans; so the political upheaval in the city where the Man stayed did not alarm me one way or the other--aside from how it affected Him of course. He was seized and treated to one of the popular death sentences of the day while women wailed and executioners laughed.
I waited, fingers itching to grab this Man's soul from the bloody pulp of a human body, thanks to the eager whips of the executioners. Unfortunately for me, the manner of his death was not likely to be fast. From what I knew of this particular form of execution, he would suffocate under the weight of his own body, but this could take hours since the human instinct for survival is so strong.
To my surprise, however, the Man didn't take long at all. He yowled something incomprehensible to the sky and there He was. It was over in a few minutes and I was disappointed; he had died like any other mortal. Now he was out of my hands, however, for my interest is with the living. The dead face Another.
The day passed; old ones died, infants and mothers locked in the terrible combat to be born and give birth passed through my hands, criminals fought and killed. Another day passed. Lepers in a quarantined section of the city slid quietly away in their sleep; a hale man in his thirties stumbled in the middle of the road from heart attack. An epidemic raging through in the Far East kept my mind very occupied. The third day came and everything changed.
I couldn't move, I was frozen; yet I burned with a thousand fires. I, who cannot feel pain, wanted to scream with agony. It was the feeling of one death stolen from me amplified ten thousand fold. Someone was ripping apart the fabric of life and death and I knew in that moment, the moment I saw His body reawaken and stare at me with eyes that saw me and lived, that I was defeated.
He looked at me and smiled. "O Death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?" he whispered, His eyes searing me. Then He was gone, but not before He left a burning knowledge within me.
People still died after Him. But something had changed; I was not the end all. People began to look upon me without fear, even with welcome and sometimes, when they pass out of my hands, I hear the whisper of beautiful singing. Death's job is never-ending and so I go back, day after day, hating it and yet… there is promise for even me.
First of all, I get a horse. A big white stallion. Oh yeah.
Secondly, I get to retire. He promised that there will be no more need for my services when He comes back because the old way of doing things is going out the window.
I hope I get a front row seat when that happens, cause it's going to be great.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
--John Donne, Holy Sonnet 10