Death Danced At The Party
By Sarina Bouvier
Based on a song by Talis Kimberley
The punch was becoming warm in the late afternoon sun. All the ice cubes in the red plastic cup had melted to turn the formerly fruity, fizzy drink bland. Nonetheless, it had retained its bizarrely sweet flavour. Tabitha carried her plastic cup of fake-cherry flavoured liquid sugar over to a bench and sat down, observing the other party guests. There was Uncle Matthew, telling tall tales about his life as a truck driver. And, over in the pavilion with the salads, girly Cousin Misty was grimly inspecting the array of leafy courses available. A small, buzzing herd of younger kids, dashed past Tabitha's place in the bench. A couple of years ago, she would have been right in the middle of them, helping to spread havoc throughout the event. But now, she just felt like sitting on the bench and enjoying the sun.
As she sipped at her punch, listening to music from an old CD player somewhere, she noticed a group of adult family members get up and began dancing in couples. They were all awful at it, and there were lots of muffled "ows", and "sorries", as feet were trod upon and shins were kicked. Tabitha watched them, bored. She didn't really have anything to do; the other teenagers were all playing with cell phones inside her Grandma's old, painted lady-like house. Grandma herself was watching over all the proceedings of her own 92nd birthday, the benevolent matriarch of a large and wild family. She was seated by the dancers, watching with smiling eyes.
Tabitha got up and wandered over to where she was sitting, with the vague intention of starting a conversation. Her Grandma had always had time for Tabitha, even when her parents were busy and her friends were away. She'd spent most of her summers here, in the old house in the forest, learning how to bake bread and count the stars.
Suddenly, she noticed a strange face amongst the many familiar relatives; someone whom she'd never seen before. As far as she knew, there had been no new marriages or boyfriends recently. Aside from this one person, she knew everyone here.
The stranger was tall, wearing dark clothes that seemed to suck up any light that shone on them. Tabitha was unable to get a good look at his face; her gaze seemed to slide right off of it whenever she tried to focus on it. She had a general impression of pale features and dark hair, but aside from that, there seemed to be nothing but an indistinct blur.
She changed course, intending to confront him, but just as she turned his way, he dove into the crowd of awkwardly-shuffling dancers. She lost sight of him almost immediately. She stood on the edge of the mass of dancers, watching for the stranger. She caught a glimpse of him dancing with Great-Aunt Mary-Louise, but he had disappeared in an instant. Tabitha stood there for a few more minutes, uncertain. Just as she was about to turn around and head back to the bench to finish off her punch, she saw him exiting the mass of dancers, sliding off towards the woods. Without a second thought, Tabitha followed. She was curious now. And while curiosity may have killed the cat, satisfaction brought the poor creature back. She stepped into the woods cautiously; she'd been clambering around in here since she could walk, and knew every step of the way, but it was still easy to turn an ankle in the tangle of roots. The cheerful noise and music of the party disappeared, almost as if someone had flipped a mute switch. She lost sight of the man quickly, but she had a general idea of which direction he'd been going in. She hiked through the tangled woodlands, heedful of where she placed her feet, trying to be as quiet as possible. Though it felt like forever, she had probably only been walking for about 20 minutes when she stumbled gracelessly into a clearing.
Standing on the other side of it was the man in black. She thought he was looking at her, but it was kind of hard to tell since his face kept sliding from her vision. Tabitha still couldn't tell any details like age, race, facial shape… he seemed to have a veil or something over his figure, making it incredibly difficult to focus on anything about him.
"Who are you?" She demanded, quietly pleased that her voice hadn't shaken.
"No one you need to know of right now. Go back to the party and enjoy yourself." His voice was quiet, composed. It had something disharmonious about it though, like a single off-key note in a long, elaborate melody.
"I don't think so. Who are you and what are you doing here? This is private property, and I know you aren't related to anyone here."
"Those are not questions I feel obligated to answer. Go back to the party, and enjoy it while you still can." The man's voice held a vague note of… not sadness, but sorrow. There was an impersonal sense of melancholy about him.
"'While I still can?' What do you mean by that? What are you, some escaped convict or crazy person? Why are you here?"
"You want answers? Fine." There was an irritated note to the voice now. "I am the anthropomorphic personification of the idea of Death for humans. Is that straight enough for you, foolish girl?"
Tabitha was shocked into silence, but almost immediately, her mind began rationalizing his statement. Death? No way. How ridiculous. Silly, really. And yet, something about his manner gnawed at her sense of surety. The calm, factual way he had said it made her doubt that he was a madman, or lying.
"If you're death…" she said slowly.
"Death," he corrected her. Tabitha could hear the capitalization he placed at the beginning of the word.
"Right. If you're Death, then why are you here?" She asked, dreading the answer. Unexpectedly, the man, Death, sighed.
"I am here because someone's time is almost up."
"Mrs. Magdalene Elwood."
"No! Grandma! You can't!"
"It is not my place to decide when people die. I just escort them."
"I don't care! You're not taking her! I'll- I'll fight you!"
"You are a human child of few years. I have been around since time immemorial. Many have tried, and all have failed, to escape or foil me. Your personal desires hold no meaning to me. This is my duty, and it always has been."
Tabitha frantically searched her mind, reviewing everything she knew from the countless stories she'd heard. The hero always had some trick up their sleeve, some cunning act constructed to get them out of whatever mess they were in.
"How about a riddle contest? The rules say you always have to accept."
Death made a sound that may have been laughter- it was difficult to tell. "Who says I must accept? I am not beholden to any human whim. No rules can bind me, no oaths may consume my being. I am as ancient as the sky and the moon. Petty regulations hold no meaning to me. Now leave."
"That's enough," a quiet voice said, echoing unnaturally throughout the small clearing. Tabitha turned around. There, silhouetted against the trees, was her grandmother.
"I'll go with you," the old woman said to Death, looking him square in the eye. Or, at least, where his eyes should have been.
"Grandma, no! Stay!"
"Goodbye, Tabitha. I love you."
With that, her beloved Grandma put her hand in Death's and walked through the other side of the clearing. She did not look back, though Death did. He gave her a solemn look, then winked, and she saw his face clearly for the first time. His eyes were as black as sorrow and eternity. His features were hard, and it was impossible to tell which ethnicity he was. He was pale as Death.
Tabitha stood there, watching them go. She dimly felt something wet on her face, and realized she was crying. With nothing else to do, she turned around and stumbled back through the forest in a daze.
When she finally returned to the backyard of her Grandma's house, almost nothing had changed. Couples were still dancing, some uncles were playing poker, and a few younger cousins were playing Beer Pong with Dr. Pepper. It was now late evening, and no one had noticed her Grandma's disappearance yet. She sat down on the same bench as before, fighting back the lingering sense of surrealism. Her punch was still sitting on the bench, lukewarm and fizzless. Among the trees, fireflies competed with paper lanterns for illumination, and Tabitha watched them.