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By: Christopher T. Shields

 

Awarded

First Place      and    Best of Show

Short Story, Adult Category

Robert Adams Memorial Writing Contest

CoastCon XV, Saturday, March 28, 1992

 

7722 Words

 

 

Nether ...

To some, it is a dream.

To others, a nightmare.

To those that know the Nether, it is but another world, existing at a tangent to this one.

A world that has many names; the Afterworld, the Otherworld, the Hereafter, Elysium, Hades, the Netherworld, the Nextworld, and the Afternether among those most often spoken. All these names, and others. Some names of which are best left unspoken for now, all these names fit this other world as if they were but one and the same.

I am more than familiar with all one thousand and one names of this world. For now,'Nether' will do as any other name.

Nether.

It lies in the Far Beyond, in the realm of dreams and inner vision, in that shadowy realm that separates life from death, light from darkness. Nether is connected to this world by nothing more than the Bridge that spans the Two Halves of the Mind. To tour the Nether, one merely has to dream deeply, dreaming without ever really sleeping. To never awaken from the dream is to reside in the Nether forever, trapped on the Far Side of the Bridge. One must also be careful in their journey that one does not overstay their welcome, for the Living can stay in the Land of the Dead for but a finite time, lest their stay become one of eternity.

And so, forewarned!

Listen, then, to this tale, strange though it may be, but true though it is! Listen to the tale of the time that I voyaged to Nether as but a simple traveler, a seeker of knowledge, a guest, and no more. I went to Nether seeking Death. Harken to my tale, and take heed of the many wonders of Nether. Behold of this, picturing it verily in your Mind's Eye.

Everyone deserves a page of good fortune in the Book of Fate. For most, though, this is but an aspiration, a dream. For a few, merely a couplet or a handful of words are offered in their praise. Still others are awarded whole sentences and even lengthy paragraphs. Very few are those who receive a whole page which is written on their behalf.

I am one of those fortunate few, though I am nothing more than a simple journeyman, a traveler of this realm. The journey begins in the Hall of the Mind's Eye. There, the Mirror of Infinite Reflection is placed. It is large, and as ornately wrought with burnt gold as it is inlaid with fine platinum etching. If you look closely at the frame, the small etchings will tell a story. Each tiny carving seems to move, like a precious metal possessed, of its own free will though the movement as a whole takes on a deeper meaning.

If, perchance, one were to gaze up, looking inside its smooth, unbroken, silvery surface, then one would plainly see that there lies therein the reflections of one's life. For the life of whosoever chances to look upon the Great Mirror is told in great detail and utter completeness up to the point of time at which the viewer chanced upon to look into the Mirror. I am such of one. I have seen the Mirror of Infinite Reflection on many an occasion. Now again before me it lies. Of visible support against its seemingly great weight pressing on the rich tapestry draped wall, I can find none.

I pause in my walk, take stock in my appearance, perchance to review my past; those achievements I have endeavored to bring to fruition and the fulfillment of my wants and desires. Our time in this life is fleeting, it is up to us to live with honor what little time we are allotted by Fate. I am well satisfied with this mortal life so far. In my wake the Great Mirror tells of nothing for which there is need to be ashamed. I turn and stand before my lofty goal.

There, at the end of the Hall of the Mind's Eye lies the Black Door, and next to it, a gold stand upon which a highly ornate Hourglass is kept. Fine red sand lies seemingly undisturbed in the bottom of the glass. Two tomes lie next to the Hourglass, each resting on the finest of black silk and satin.

They are the Book of Life, and the Book of Fate.

Many times have I paused to read from these works and contemplate their passages.

My gaze travels up and away from the tomes, to the Black Door. A door, simple enough, that everyone must pass through once in their life, but those that go willingly are but few. Those that return are even fewer still. Angels fear to tread where I now wander. I have been beyond the Black Door, undone the chain, turned the key, cycled the lock.

I have been beyond and back again.

This journey is not new to me.

These passages are naught but familiar territory.

Now that Black Door stands before me yet once again. Do I perchance travel the lonely road that lies beyond this portal? I have, as said already, upon many occasions before, been beyond this Door and then back again.

Now is the time for decision. A moment suspended in time. A fork in the path. Shall I go through this portal once more?

Harken!

Is that scratching sounding from the Door? Scratching from the other side? Oh, but where to hide? Oh, keep the wolf far hence, that's foe to man, or with its nails it'll dig up its slain relatives!

But, I jump to conclusions.

Stay.

Is that the scratching of a feral beast? Or is that just the wind? Or could it simply be the beating of my heart?

I know not.

Stay.

I will remain calm. Anxiety has been more than one man's undoing in this world. This journey is not new to me. I have no need to knock, or to tug on the knotted and braided bell pull. I know fully well into whose House I now tread.

I'm expected, even welcome, for you see, Death awaits me.

She does so with open arms. We have a date. Only one could live beyond the Door, and it is She that I now seek. I undo the chain, turn the key, cycle the lock. Polished solid brass dead bolts slide back with but the barest whisper from both transom and threshold. Darkness lies beyond.

I close my weary eyes and step through the Door, the ornate Hourglass on the gold stand starts its timely run, magically turning end over end as the red sand slowly begins to fall.

In the distance, there resounds a somber, hollow gong. Once, twice, three times and then silence.

For it is written in the Book of Life; the Living can stay in the Land of the Dead for only so long. This deep, bottomless and dreamless sleep do I dare.

My eyes open. I stand alone on the Barren Plain, stretching lifelessly as far as the eye can see. Blood, fallen in the dust, never washed away as it rains red rain from the dark sky. I have walked the high wire before. I had to walk real high. The Four Horsemen were my protégés, often They have drawn my carriage when I have visited Her.

On my life, I have cast a cold, jaded eye. On Death, I pray, let Her not pass me by.

Death does not ask your permission, She has nothing to do with anyone's wishes, and whether you care for Her ways and laws or dislike them, you are bound to accept Her as She is. You can only go through once within this life. To live once and once again is possible naught, though some may say that our lives are already doubled. One life is spent waking, and the other is spent roaming our dreams.

Do not waste your tears on me. I was not born to watch the world grow dim. Life is not measured in years, but by the deeds of men.

Innocence is hurting. Everyone speaks out of cue.

I feel old, standing upon this barren, broken plain. The Black Door behind me, closes now, slowly fades away. I am old, too old and tired of the eternal fight, but wise enough to see that all the scars are on the inside. I carry the guilt of all Man's sin with the final knowledge that life has but one end.

Death.

The final knock upon the last Door. There is nothing permanent except change. Change and Death, oh so noble.

Where can She be? She's late, the sands of time are running, and I can't wait.

I must hurry on, you see.

My name floats on the wind, restless and wild. The wind whistles and shrieks. The widows recognize me by name. Into every life must fall a little rain. Into mine comes storm and wind. These thoughts comfort me as I walk along my way.

Crimson mud along the shores of a slow moving red river. I stop for a moment but to rest. A man in a white shroud stands out in the water, waist deep, but still far thence from shore. His shroud is getting soaked in red, its loose material trying to float away from him, carried gently along with the currents until it is played out, where then it meanders back and forth around him. A burial shroud, I realize now. The man is clothed in a burial shroud. He looks to me, as if just noticing my presence on the shore and motions for me to come closer. I hesitate, what could he want from me? He waves me forward, his curving finger a spectral beacon that is hard to ignore.

I approach, slowly. Cautiously. Warily I stand at the Red River's edge. 'Don't step into the River,' this strange man, he cautions, 'the current is very fast.'

"The water is barely disturbed." I reply, reaching down, and stirring the water gently with my hand.

'Ah, but you should know the danger of waters as still as these.' he replies, cackling like mad.

"What are you doing?" I ask, not that it would matter to me.

He smiles, shrugs his shoulders, and throws his arms up as if to heaven.

'You can't step into the same river twice. Everything changes. The world is but a flux.' he shouts.

Then he is gone, dissolved slowly, fading away before my very eyes. I watch the now empty shroud slowly float downstream, carried on the currents that I could not see. Poor Heraclitus ... You will never know how right you really were. There is nothing constant but change. Change and Death.

Heraclitus.

His bones are even now swept down river by those unseen currents, to be carried eventually to the Sea, over red algae covered rocks along the way they tumble and clatter. A strange grin upon his skull as it rolls along the River's bottom. Maybe he is eternally laughing at those that once mocked him.

Sadly, the tides are changing.

Red tides.

I have seen perfect water before, the color of cobalt most blue. Blue, what a funny color for water to be....  A king's tear, a woman's anguished cry, both can only produce the same.

Death is late, I cannot wait, and I must hurry on.

I stand on the broken hard ground, now crumbling to dust beneath my every step.

Blood leading back the way I have come. Back through the years, back to Cain. Poor Abel. What love this that one brother hath for another. I stand with the knowledge that love really isn't. I've seen many people love in vain. I've seen love come and I've seen love go though I have never understood just what love is. I turn, my shadow following me, stretching out beyond my grasp.

I shield my eyes and watch the sun set behind me on the far distant horizon. I wonder if it is the last sunset that I will ever see? I never grow tired of this majestic star and its beautiful decent. The clouds dance purple on the horizon, as if trying to follow. Night is now rising. The stars beckon in the dim moonlit night, but touch them I can not. A fatal attraction is holding me back, the strength to return the way I have come I confess that I might truly lack.

This place, it meets my fancy.

My footsteps unknowingly stamp into the dust a black rose. There in my footprint is the rose, flattened, a subject for a macabre still life. I had a rose once, but it withered and died. Now I lay alone at night, remembering her. Truly, sorrow is a woman and I ponder, if but for a moment. When a man stoops to folly, and finds too late that women can hurt and betray ... What can then put his melancholy ridden mind to ease, what art can wash his guilt away?

I know not.

Such a beautiful flower, but I realize that every rose has its thorns. A sharp prick, a sting, and a tiny bubble of red. I had to ask myself, was it love, or the idea of being in love. Sometimes, it's hard to discern the roses from the weeds. Hearts, like rules and bones, can be easily broken if the correct amount of leverage is applied to just the right point.

I stand there a moment, taking in this Elysian Field now blossoming in the night of this dark springtime. All around me, budding in the moonlight, black roses and weeds, together springing up and stretching away as far as the eye can see. I kneel, and pick a single black rose. I gently pluck the rose at the base, red flows from the broken stem. Slows to a trickle. Finally stops.

How alike we are, this flower and I. We are both natives of this solitary, lonely place. How more alike need we be? I rest for a second, no more. Time enough to smell the fragrance of the black roses along my path. Death is late, and I must hurry on.

"Death, where art Thou?" I ask aloud.

Death.

"Hear my beckon. Heed my call."

She answers me not.

Death is late, and I must hurry on.

Night continues to rise, long and lonely. The sun has finally been laid to rest. Dark world, wrapped in a black shawl. No birds sing here, there are no happy songs. Ahead a dim illumination competes with the dark of night. Over the rise there lies a city. The sounds of a city at sleep that never rests.

The streets ahead are dimly lit, the black rose in my hand. Necropolis, The City of the Dead. A little time passed finds me in a dimly lit sidewalk dive, wreathed in neon and smoke. A dead end street. The cafe has no name. Death is late and I am waiting. I pass my time with shades and strangers, but this bottle is my only true friend. Oh, bartender, pour us your poison so I can revive my soul. My cup runneth over.

The crowd shifts, slowly drifts aside.

I turn around.

She enters.

Her long black dress flowing behind Her majestically, trailing the floor. The fabric of Her dress, the Fates have woven. Of their workmanship, none can dispute. She is magnificent, beautiful. I stand as She approaches, bowing slightly.

'You have not forgotten your manners, I see.' Death says.

I move a chair out from the table for Her, seating Her at the table I have reserved for the evening. A lone black candle burns with a white flame, casting eerie shadows in the flickering light. The candle never burns down, never burns out.

'You have come again, this time, my love. Will you not stay here with me forever?' She asks.

"Nay, I cannot." I say.

'Please stay.'

"Nay, it cannot be."

'I pray you now, please stay.' She begs.

"Not this time." I say.

'Spend the night in my arms, enjoy my hospitality, my body, my charms.' She pleads.

"Though the offer is tempting, I must firmly decline. To stay longer than the fixed Hour would find me here forever, now please don't cry."

She relents, and knows that to stay I surely cannot. My time has not yet come. Yet, though one day ...

"You're late." I tell Death. "That is not like you."

'There was business that had to be finished,' She shrugs, 'and I knew that you would wait.'

I nod. Patience is a virtue.

'Besides, I am never truly far away ...' Death adds.  'I have always been with you. From the moment you were born you were destined to be with me one day. So it is for you, so it is for everyone. Few though, desire my company.'

Always the poet, Death, I think to myself. I reach into my shirt, and present Her with the black rose that I picked. Death smiles, taking the rose and smelling deeply of the fragrance of the black flower.

'It's beautiful,' She tells me. 'How did you know?'

'I know.' I reply.

'You know me too well,' She chides, 'and only time will tell if such knowledge is be for boon or curse.'

I stare into the flickering light of the candle's flame, silence drifts between us.

'I can tell that you're troubled, you're lost in your thoughts tonight,' She says, 'here, lend me your hand.'

I offer to buy Death a drink and She smiles, and accepts. It's the rekindling of a friendship, a perfect match. We dance, a slow waltz while the band plays a haunting somber tune. She is light on Her feet, like a wraith possessed, Her perfume is intoxicating as we dance close. She is graceful and composed, willing to lead and to be led. A fine partner for a dance this intricate and slow.

'It's been a long time since I've danced,' says Death. 'Thank you for this chance.'

"It was my pleasure," I reply. "A memory I'll cherish."

The music dies, we take our seats. We finish the bottle of fine black wine, empty our sculpted glasses in a toast, and slip off into the night. The shadows and shades watch us depart. The Hour grows late and there is much to see. The red sand is falling, falling. The Hourglass in its simple devoted duty.

Let us be on our way.

I see the City through the sightless eyes of a dirty shrouded beggar on the corner. He waves his gnarled staff and cries out at those that he senses pass by. He cries out that if an eye causes you to sin, then it is best to pluck it out. If a hand causes you to sin, it is better to cut it off. For all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God. Heed my warning, oh brother dear! Listen to the preacher! The shades and wraiths mill about, restless. Spirits with no peace.

A bewildered, wide eyed man suddenly comes running past, dressed in night clothes, holding a dim lantern, and crying out at the top of his lungs, 'God is dead! We have killed him!'

The people stare at the man, pitifully, and go about their business.

'Do you not care?' he asks them, dumbfounded.

No one looks at him. No one dares.

"Who is this?" I ask myself aloud.

'That is Nietzsche.' Death replies. 'A man of little importance.'

We walk on, merry in our own way. Wraiths and shades, pale images of former selves, pass us on the sepulchral lit streets in silence, sadness, and abandon. Carriages of bone drawn by spectral steeds pass in the dim grave stone gray street. Death watches with fascination, this is a carnival for Her, a wonderland of delight.

I notice many things, many insights, in this land of Hers.

The Hour is late, no longer can we hesitate. We move on, on our tour.

We walk through crowded rooms full of empty people. People living off of other people's woe. Shades. Wraiths. Specters. Ghosts. Ouphes. Barghis. Pale, dim images of former selves. Death lets Her hair down, the long black strands dancing lightly in the wind. We have no time for their kind. There are no holds barring us tonight. I carry the guilt of all mankind and I feel tired. The weight of my burden is heavy though the burden is small. How easily it fits into a hollow soul like mine.

Red snow is falling, it is time we moved on.

The sunrise breaks a crimson slash over a ill fated harvest moon. We are all but tenants with a temporary lease on this dark, black world. We hide our feelings and suffer the pain.

'Pain is an delusion of your senses, despair a delusion of your mind. Every man is but a brief spark in the vast chasm of darkness, by the time he is noticed, he is gone forever. A dim after image that quickly fades and is obscured by newer and even brighter lights.' Death says.

I agree.

'People are at the hands of forces beyond their control, though it is often they that set those very same forces into motion to begin with,' Death says as She looks back one last time at the City of the Dead.

We walk down the Long and Winding Broken Road, hand in hand.

The Hour grows late and there is much to see. Let us be on our way. I think to myself. One day, my soul will break free, but now we travel ever onwards, stopping but only to rest.

The Plains of Emptiness and the City of the Dead we leave behind us, the Mountains of Madness lie far ahead. Beyond that, the Sea of Hostility. The journey is long and arduous. Do not waste your tears on me. Faith can make you strong.

Believe in God, for there is always time to become an atheist. If you believe in God when you die and God doesn't exist, then you have lost nothing. If you do not believe in God when you die and God really exists, then you have lost everything.

Poor Nietzsche.

Death laughed at your ignorance.

Death ....

She's my constant companion and my life long friend.

I run my fingers through Her long black silky hair, She falters in my arms, swoons in my embrace. Sadly, one day I'll break Death's heart as no one else has. Life is a prison, Death is my warden, my keeper. Death's last embrace shall be my pardon, my release. Death is not something to fear. Her final touch will not be a cold one, but rather that of a lover's warm embrace. She follows me through my life's tattered pages.

We climb the Mountains of Madness, it grows warm. The path is narrow and windy, winding and treacherous. They say that time cures all problems but Death is always the final answer. Often along the way, we talk. She tells me of those that didn't come back from War.

We talk of others, philosophers, poets and writers that we have met or by chance have read. She turns to me. Saying;

'Let us stop our walk, let us sit here for a while and talk.'

We sit on a cracked cornerstone, underneath a crumbling stone statue that towers over us even though a full half of it is buried in rubble. I gaze out upon the mist shrouded ruins, noticing a vast shattered temple and the rubble of an ancient city beyond. A hidden valley has risen around us as we have walked.

"This place, it strikes my curiosity. What was it?" I ask, glancing around.

'It used to be Shangri-La,' Death says. 'or it could have been Valhalla. Olympus. Atlantis. Does it really matter? Those that dwelt here, they thought that they had found a way to escape me, a place of sanctuary where Death could not tread. They were mistaken. I can be forgotten, but I cannot be ignored.'

I nod.

"Let us talk about War." I say and She sighs.

'That is an interesting subject, yes, this subject I do so like.'

War, the sport that Death is most skilled at.

"What is war?" I ask quite simply and Death smiles.

'War is an argument, simply put and heinously understated. It is a large, viscous argument between groups of people, often nations or powers that may be. War is carefully waged and carried out in order for the sole purpose of changing a group of people's minds to that way of thinking that is similar in nature to that of the aggressor. The reality of war is that many people die before their minds can ever be changed.'

I listen intently. Death can teach the Living many, many things.

'Swords know no heroes and arrows feel no pain. Weapons don't kill people. People kill people. There are a lot of people with weapons. Emotion doesn't pay when your weapon is drawn.'

Money talks, the wind whispers and sighs. The reason a dog has so many friends is that he wags his tail instead of his tongue. Listen to the preacher, children, and say your prayers, for even Kings and Queens die.

Why do heroes always have to die.

Legends never die.

The flame just burns out long before the candle ever does, like a candle in the wind. A flame that burns twice as bright, burns half as long. Words to be remembered. Listen to the preacher! Onward march the Christian soldiers! Follow the example they set in the Far East. Look to your battle dress and it will protect you. Your armor is your soul and your soul's unfaltering devotion it's armor. My heart is graven, etched in stone, there next to my name. There comes a vision upon me, as if through the slowly ebbing flame of a hero's life.

"Religion has never been very good at stopping wars, has it ?" I muse aloud.

Death looks at me, cocks her head, and twists a strand of black hair around her finger.

"Religion was never good at stopping wars, only starting them." She says.

She reaches out a slender finger, jet black nail, perfect paled skin, exquisite. I feel Her cold touch on my forehead. A soothing cool that spreads throughout my fevered brain. A vision comes to me, dancing across my Mind's Eye. I see a boy, he is playing on a battlefield. Shattered bodies and smashed equipment litter the field, enveloped in a strata of dust and smoke that is the fog of war.

The boy is playing with a skull, a helmet, and a bone.

He has every right to do so, for he is my son, and the skull, the helmet, and the bone are mine.

The vision slowly vanishes.

Death smiles, nodding in silent assent to my broadening understanding. I am learning. There is still much to say and to discuss. I pose questions and muses.

She answers in kind.

I say that Darwin was surely mistaken, and Marx was a crazy old fool. She agrees, saying that Teiresias was a transvestite, and Hamlet but a specter's tool. I say that Malthus was a prophet. She claims that T. S. Elliot and Kant must surely have both been quite mad.

I say that Aeschylus' head must surely have looked like a stone.

We talk of things like this and such, for quite a while it seems. The conversation drifts back and forth, like a gentle breeze wafting the smoke from a candle whose flame has just been extinguished. Time passes differently here than in the normal world, yet time still marches on.

I look at Her as She sits there. I bask in Her simple beauty. Death, so noble. I start, falter as I search for the right words, choose to say nothing, then continue.

I kiss Death, She closes Her eyes and sways.

I understand now more than I did before. That is the sole reward of learning. These people She has welcomed, others She has read about in books written by the people She has welcomed. She has walked and talked with them or with their creators. Time is running out, our time together is both precious and measured. I kiss Her again and She responds in fervent kind. Time ticks away, the Hour is growing late and there is still much to see.

Let us be on our way.

The Hourglass cannot be slowed or stopped.

Its duty, its dedication, they are but one and the same.

'Here, take my hand, let's walk, you and I, and see what there is to see. There is still much business that is left to be finished and it is time that we moved on.' She says.

We fall into step together, then, Death and I. I take Her hand, She is silent. I break the silence, pose Her a question.

"Which is mightier? The Pen or the Sword?" She pauses in Her step, pondering Her answer.

'The Sword is mightier than the Pen.' She says. 'Because you can die by the Sword, but you cannot die by the Pen.'

I had never thought of it that way.

Poor Archimedes, run through by the sword of a Roman soldier ....

'Let me ask you a question in turn ...' She began.

I nod.

'Who would you want fighting for your family, your nation, your way of life? Would you choose a poet or a soldier?'

I begin to see the logic in Her teachings.

I am learning.

I start, pause, then ask Her this question; "Which is mightier? The metal or the flesh? Is the sword mightier than the hand that wields it? Can a sword cut without a person to wield it?"

'And what do you draw from these questions?' She asks.

"That the flesh is mightier than either the sword or the pen."

Death nods. 'But the flesh is weak. You see the paradox, do you not?'

My trail of thought has come full circle. I have learned something, though I am at a loss as to the exact knowledge. That will come with wisdom. Wisdom is the fermenting process through which all the fruit of knowledge must surely pass. Death continues the lesson, prompting me to ask further.

"Can either the Devil or the Priest exist if either ceases to be?"

She replies.

'How can there be a devil if there is no priest to tell you about it and how can there be a priest, if there is no devil to reveal?'

More questions, this has She aroused in me. Well then, what of the widows and orphans? What of the starving, the homeless, the crippled? What of the conflicts that engulf nations? She smiles, a cold hard smile that chills my soul and cuts me to the bone. She's teasing me now, happy not to be alone. To have someone to talk to, to hold Her hand, to dance with. Someone like me.

She answers thusly: 'For every war, every merit, every right and liberty won, a thousand heroes will most certainly die alone, unsung and unremembered save by the only victor there can ever be in war.'

The only victor, I deduce, there can be no other victor but She.

Our path widens, straightens, leads to the Sea of Hostility.

The Hour grows more late and there is much to see, but let us continue on our way.

Death and I, the eternal champion and the eternal wanderer, together hand in hand on this nihilistic Mobius strip. There is no right or wrong in Her time honored ancient profession. She is the same to everyone, every religion, every person, every nation. All know Death, in some form, way or fashion. She is eternal, never changing. She is omnipotent, all bearing, all pervading. She is eternal. No beginning and no end.

The present changes the past from moment to moment. Pray for the future to honor the present.

Honor the art of Death and honor the battle dress of the Dead. Here I am and here one day I shall surely die. The thought bothers me not. A passage, long since ago read, comes to me now.

"'Death is such as generation is, a mystery of Nature ... altogether not a thing of which any man should be ashamed ...'" I say, remembering a quote.

'You are cultured, and very well educated, I might add.' says Death.

"Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor, stoic philosopher, Fourth Book of Meditations. I have read it before." I say, sure in my passage.

"One should not view Death as bad, but should greet Her with a cheerful acceptance as with any natural order." I say.

'You flatter me.' Death says. 'But answer me this. Which do you think is more beautiful, Nature or I?'

"I cannot lie." I say.  "Nature is more beautiful, but you must see and take into account with whom I am spending my time. I find that time spent with Nature is not as rewarding as that I am spending with you now. For Nature can answer many questions, but it is You who has the final answer. Nature can show me many things, but even Nature must eventually and humbly submit Her greatest works even to You. The ancient Greeks believed that Death is the greatest gift. Those that die stop suffering the torment of this physical existence while those who live on in this life must suffer still. Even the Greek goddess of Nature said 'Never forget Death.'"

'Your manners suit you most fine.' says Death with a smile. 'I do so enjoy your company.'

I smile.

I have charmed Death, a feat of no little importance. Some would revere me as a legend in certain circles, a hero of mythic proportions in others. I am no deity. A hero? A legend? Perhaps ... I am yet still young and the future has much to reveal. I am many things to many people but I am no prophet.  I have not yet seen the moment of my greatness come, and I dare not imagine seeing it flicker and pale. It is time to find new ways, new paths to completeness and self satisfaction. After all, I have a destiny to fulfill, not a fate to suffer.

All paths lead over the Mountains of Madness, to the Sea of Hostility, all lives lead to Death. The Sea moves ever so silently. Sadly, the tides are changing, the red waves crash to the shore. We stop to watch the black gulls play and soar.

I part my hair behind, roll up the bottoms of my white flannel trousers, cast my shoes aside. I walk upon the stained beach, my foot prints do I leave behind on this Stygian shore. Red sand. Black sand. Swirls and mixed. The sand is warm, dry, sticky, and gritty, even when the red water runs up and flows over it. The water itself is warm and sticky, frothy and foamy. It is the Blood of Ages, that has been spilt throughout time. I stare out at the Sea as Nature combs the white hair of the red waves blown back in a foamy froth.

There is no singing out among the waves. All the mermaids have drowned. Farther out, I chance to see the luminescent spectral white sails of the ghost ships as they tack into the wind. I see their ornately carved bows cleave and crash down into the dark waters, creaking with the movement of the waves and the load set upon ancient timbers.

Loose lips sink ships and though I can swim, I don't fancy getting wet.

My smallest of thoughts, each is a light upon the darkness so that others may sail the Red Sea in safety.

In the distance a man sits upon the beach, gazing at the crimson water, staring at the horizon.

Soon, we stand beside him. He fails to notice our presence. I glance out, trying to perceive, perchance to see, what he might see but nothing readily presents itself. "Barren and empty is the sea." I say to him. He turns, looking up, facing me.

'Is there any sign of Isolde?' he asks.

"Barren and empty is the sea." I remind him.

He nods, more to himself than in regard to my answer. He turns back to the sea, sinking deeper in his grief. Death is standing behind him now. Her black shawl dances in the wind.

Death says to me; 'A man dies yet still his essence may continue to exist if his work enters the Greater Work. Time is carried upon a swift current interrupted only by long forgotten acts and deeds. Great events are but the culmination of carefully placed thoughts and plans. It is the work of a great many that makes the many great.'

As I am thinking this over, She turns and continues to walk down the dark beach.

The Hour grows late and there is much to do. I must be on my way. The red sea roars, the black gulls cry. I linger behind a second longer, looking at the man sitting on the beach. He is lost again, lost to himself. I feel pity at this lost soul, this shade of a man.

Poor Tristan.

Barren and empty is the Sea.

Tomorrow is always a day away, and yesterday is always one behind. Guilt is here to stay. Today is now and the tides are changing. The currents of the ether are rippling in a storm warning.

I catch up to Death, far down the dark beach. She sits in the prow of a small boat, floating gently in a shallow pool near an inlet. She is painting, an easel on Her lap. I wade out to Her, shin deep in red warm sticky water. Death pauses in Her painting, dips Her hand over the side of the boat and down into the dark water, creating eddies and ripples as She moves Her hand back and forth. She gathers water in the cup of Her hand, letting it gently cascade and drip from Her hand back into the Sea.

Dripping like tears being cried.

She watches my reflection and Hers in the water, the ripples changing our appearance with each drop that hits the water. I ask Her what She is painting. She shows me Her work. Black on black, intersected by tones of gray.

I ask Her what it means.

'Everything and nothing.' She replies. 'It is a portrait of you.'

"That's surely mad." I tell Her, looking at the image on the easel.

The image slowly comes into focus, then as if it always was so. Gray and gray. Tones and pigments, various shades, still that single macabre color. A marriage of black and white. Death nods at Her work, signing Her name to the bottom corner of the portrait.

Esmeralda, Death's one true name.

'Only those that are mad have the strength to prosper and only those that prosper judge what is considered sane.' She says, beckoning to me.

I climb aboard.

Together we raise the sail and tack into the winds of the Ether. The Mountains of Madness to our backs, slowly receding into the distance. Death sits on the prow, watching the black gulls arc and dive, cry and play. Cold hearts on a warm dark sea. Sadly the tides are changing, but Death is patient. Ashes will be to ashes, and dust will return to dust. Death will have Her will. The beginning is the end, history repeats itself in iambic beats.

I ask Her a question yet once again.

"Can you tell me if there really is free will or predestination? Spiritual quest or self delusion? Individual rights or societal needs? Inevitable conflict or eventual cooperation? Pagan or Christian? Heathen or Heretic? Black or white? Right or Wrong? Conscientious objection or cowardice? Light or Darkness? Good or Evil? Love or Hate?"

Death thinks solemnly for a moment, pensive in Her thoughts.

'It is neither within My will nor My scope to answer questions that cannot be answered. That is the soul teetering upon the ledge of indecision.' She tells me. 'Look deep within yourself, there you will find what you are looking for.'

I search for wisdom, but I achieve only a frustration of will.

'Temper your thoughts, mold them in the forge of your will.' She tells me.

She throws Her head back, Her long black hair wafting freely in the gentle breeze.

'Do they really matter, these things that worry you so? Do they really matter at all in the end?' She asks.

How could they? Death cares not for them.  These are questions that many have tried to answer and none have succeeded.  The semantics of Man are not her court. 

'Does a spoon perceive the taste of food?' She asks. 'These questions you pose, are they not similar to this?'

I know that Death surely thinks not.

Which is faster? The tortoise or the hare? Does it really matter? Death will have them both in the final end. You cannot outrun Death; the race in life fully belongs to Her, even before it is begun.

'Man was born to die. It is inevitable. It is natural. It is unavoidable. It should not be feared. Man cannot prevent his own eventual end of Life anymore than he can physically reach his hand up and stop the moon from moving across the night sky. I am with you when you are born, I am with you when you finally are ready to walk with Me forever again.'

What of these things could Death possibly care.

Blood fallen in the dust. I will show you fear in a handful of dust. The dark water ends abruptly, becoming red dust. The boat makes neither bump nor roll. Sailing on a sea of red dust, the Mountains of Madness finally vanish beneath the horizon so far behind us. On the horizon, the spectral sails still tack into the winds of the Ether.

"And the fools did sail away ..." I mumble.

Death hears me not.

The Sea of Dust is so calm, I could sleep with Death here forever upon these gentle dunes. I draw closer to Her, looking at the starless night above. She nuzzles near, we slip arms about each other, lost in one another's presence. Such is the way that it has been often before.

'You are still troubled. Have I been of no help to you?' asks Death.

"Yes, my spirits are lifted, but questions I still have."

'As rust is a disease of metal, so canker is a disease of plants, and as cancer a disease of man and animal, so must man always have questions that must be answered. What of your questions? Ask them of me now.' Death whispers in my ear.

"When I am dead, will they cry for me?"

'Gilgamesh wept for Enkidu for seven days and seven nights.' Death says, smiling.

History and drama show that the act of mourning can be heroic and legendary, and not a release that is unique to mere mortals, for even Jesus wept.   My knowledge grows, tempered by wisdom, hammered into shape by force of will. I have learned much from Death. I hunger for Her knowledge even more.

Then it is over.

The Hour is done.

The red sand in the Hourglass has finished its run. The boat comes to a stop, rocking gently on a cool tiled floor. In front of us looms the ominous, all too familiar Black Door. We disembark, leave the boat behind high and dry in that great hall. We walk across black and white staggered tiles, the echo of Her heels on the cool floor a light tapping out a spectral tune.

We continue on, toward the Door, She and I, hand in hand. She turns me around and we stop, She faces me and takes both of my hands in hold with Hers.

'I must ask again,' Death says. 'Will you not stay here with me forever?'

"Nay, I cannot." I say.

'Please stay.'

"Nay, it cannot be."

'I pray you now, please stay.' She tasks, using all of Her charms.

"Not this time." I say.

'Spend the night in my arms, enjoy my hospitality, my body, my charms.' She pleads.

"Though the offer is tempting, I must firmly decline. To stay longer than the fixed Hour would find me here forever. Please, don't beg this of me."

She lowers Her head, Her smile slowly vanishes as She relents, and knows that what I say is true. My time has not yet come. But one day ...

'Come and dance with me again,' I hear Death say. 'I do so enjoy your company.'

"Soon." I promise and I know that I'll be back.

This place, it does meet my fancy.

She holds the black rose close, then with a last, longing touch, a kiss, and we are done.

Death and I go our separate ways, She to Her world, and I to mine. We're not so different, Death and I. I undo the chain, turn the key, cycle the lock and open the Door, step through. I'm alone again in the Hall of the Mind's Eye. The Mirror is there and so is the Hourglass. The red sand looking barely disturbed at the bottom of the ancient time piece.

It has been another evening, another rendezvous, another dance with Death. Death and I. There will be another time, another chance.

The Black Door shuts behind me, barely a whisper as it closes. The polished solid brass dead bolts sliding out, locking the Door firmly in both transom and threshold. I stop and think, noticing for the first time and coming to admire the new portrait that hangs before me in the Hall of the Mind's Eye. Sepulchral lit, hung with platinum wires strung across ornate gold hooks, directly across from the Mirror of Infinite Reflection.

I can see Death's neat signature at the bottom of the portrait.

Ah.

The Art of Death.

Death surely has a way with Her painting, as I often say, to be able to have captured my portrait so accurately with just these few shades.

These few shades of gray.

 

 

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