Death Loved a Poet
by Adira Rotstein
Death loved a Poet once, I say
T’was long ago, he died in May
Faded from all thought but mine
Those memories of that long past time.
A handsome man, ensnared by Death
Who took him up, left me bereft
She swept his soul into a jar
And took him with her far, far, far
And brought him there to serve her court
And pay her tribute of the sort
That I knew well, our lovers’ play.
His heart by night, her hunt by day
In verse in body, breath and charm
My bauble for her snow white arm
His existence wreathed around with lies,
Now is Death happy with her prize?
A thing who has forgot his life
The bite of cold rejection, strife,
Shades not the glow of his blue eye
But neither is there joy’s sweet cry
They all forget, I can’t say why
That none remembers him but I.
From “Death Loved a Poet”
Upon the wintry banks of Lake Geneva a fire burned. Death upon her daily round through the feverish mountain towns sallied down to get a better look. She sensed only one soul to be collected amid all that smoke and fire. The acrid scent of burning man-flesh was unmistakable, carried on the chill Swiss air. She found the body of the Poet lying upon a funeral pyre in the attitude of the Ancient Greeks and Romans who had once offered up their dead to her in just such a manner.
And then she was reminded of how many men there were upon the earth now, so different from when she had begun. It was no longer possible to know them all individually, even for one such as her. One individual seemed so like the other these days, as indistinct as grains of sand upon a beach.
Yet this one… this one was familiar to her. He had mentioned her, conjured her, flattered her with his verses. While alive his lines had pleased her, as had his human form; for though she was Immortal Death, she was female and her desire burned within her cold breast greater than that of any human heart, for who among us can lay claim to having longed and lusted for anything as length of time as she had. Who among us lives that long?
Death gazed at the dead Poet in fascination. Only upon seeing him did she realized just how deeply lonely she had been these past few centuries. In ages past she recalled how credulous shamans, medicine men and priests had come to confer, to bargain, to worship, commune and comfort her. Then, if she felt particularly indulgent, she might give a favorite an ounce of wisdom or a moment’s pleasure of her body. But now, the world was full and crowded. How could she even keep track of one among so many, when their lifespans were so breathtakingly short, and her duties so all encompassing?
Yet her desire, like the tides returned, time and time again.
Occasionally, she would slake her lust, but only upon a certain type of man; a desperate, wanton man, forsaken among others of his kind, alone in such a wide, crowded world. It was her game to make such a man an offer. Would he be willing to purchase the most exquisite pleasure a human body could experience with the coin of his life?
The game was not a fair one. After all, she was a goddess and her prey always yielded, if not instantly then days or months or years later, slowly consumed by regret, haunted by the deep only half remembered, disturbed by the horrible knowledge that no mortal he sought to satisfy himself with now, no pleasure of spirit or flesh could ever compare to the ecstasy once known in Death’s tender embrace.
Humanity had many names for her when she played this game; Succubus, Vampyre, Bella Donna, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, the Queen of the Night, but they never really understood the point. The object of the game was not to see who would triumph over man’s desire. Death was nothing if not patient and immortal to boot. Men assumed, in their ignorance, that they played cards against each other, but in reality her spirit was always there, at every gaming table, in every ring. She was, and still remains, the silent, unacknowledged player, the ultimate winner in every match. She has all the time in the world to deliver her final knockout punch and knows her winnings will always come to her eventually. She always knew the beginning and the end, but what would happen in between, now that could really get interesting. The game was all in how the actual events stacked up to her estimates as she watched humanity unfold in ways both predictable and astonishing.
However, there was little time these days for even this most pithy of diversions. The cruelty and disbelief of this new century, where people discovered new ways to kill each other nearly every day, irritated her. People seemed to die faster and in greater numbers than even she could collect them. Flitting here and flitting there collecting, all day and all night had lost its charm. Increasingly, she found that work had come to occupy all her time. She made servants to help her with her task. They were good and efficient creations, yet she felt the need to supervise all that they did, for she knew none could do the job quite as well as she could. Death came to think that while she gave every soul its rest in time, she herself got none. There was no peace for her on earth, let alone an eternal repose within its cool soil at the end of the day.
Pensively watching the rising smoke of the funeral pyre, she paused, thinking of how this mortal had intrigued her while he lived. He alone in the past century had caused her to stop and watch for a moment in the midst of her daily round. Lovingly, she recalled how tightly he had gripped his pen in his elegant, ink-stained hand and how he always used a particular corner of his left shirt sleeve as a blotter. In the dancing forms of the fire she saw him; now penning an epistle to a friend, now tapping out the four part rhythm of a ballad on his desktop by the light of a midnight candle. She remembered the mercurial flash of his long-lashed hazel eyes, brown and sorrowful one moment, bright and cunning the next; wounded, mocking, lusting, inspired; those eyes that would delight no more in the myriad sensations of this world, those hands that would write no more the songs to exalt her beauty, her grace and her mercy.
It was with grudging sadness that she took his soul into her collection when her creatures brought it to her, stopped up in the usual blue glass collection bottle. Starring in a trance at the Poet’s smoky soul as it tumbled and shifted, condensing into droplets like water, clinging to the cool sides of the interior of the glass, she had a moment’s sudden flash of inspiration.
Was she not powerful? Was she not strong? Was it not possible that the cure for her loneliness was here now, at hand, and not somewhere far off in some future time? In the frosted sapphire of the bottle his soul waited for her to consume it and yet… and yet… such things-- revivals, resurrections?-- had been done before, she was sure of it, in the old ages of her ancestors. Could it not be done again?
With the precious bottle in her hand she ventured to the hidden realm of the Elders of her kind.
Some of the Elders were so old that they no longer resembled anything, having passed into diaphanous clouds of cosmic dust, in the process of slowly dissolving into the fabric of the universe. Their understanding was of too different a kind from hers, so she turned to her direct predecessor to see what they might have to say on the subject.
One of the Elders, a savage looking, mannish creature, with a fishlike tail snatched the bottle abruptly from her. She watched with baited breath to see what he would do. Already, the contents of the Poet’s soul had begun to shift and separate into its various strata of distinct qualities. The thick syrupy red of Passion was beginning to sink gradually to the bottom. The frothing lavender of Fancy now rose to deposit itself below the oily surface strata of Charm. Death knew that if she did not do something soon, if the strata were allowed to completely settle and fully separate, the Poet would be lost to her forever. Anxiously, she waited as the Elder held up the bottle to the light, slowly scrutinizing its swirling contents, flicking his scaly tail to the unknowable rhythm of his thoughts.
She was surprised, once he told her, that the key to it all was such a simple trick.
“If it is indeed so easy,” she wondered aloud, “why hasn’t it been done many times before?”
“Ah,” said one of her more elderly predecessors, stroking a white and tangled beard. “You are still young for one of us. You know not that such attachments to a mortal rarely succeed.” The elderly predecessor gazed thoughtfully into the bottle. “You give them the gift of the gods, and still they are willful, flighty and head strong. Mark me if you do not bind this one, I believe it certain he will flee.” He tapped the bottle with a long fingernail, yellowed with age. “This one even more than most.”
“What can I do to make him stay?” asked Death.
The Elders conferred among each other. Then they explained to her the ways she might bind the Poet to her, so he would never stray.
On her way back home with her prize, Death happened to meet her sister Life, standing by the gate of her garden. She wore a hooded cloak of brownish-green with the hood pulled down low over her eyes. Upon closer inspection Death could see that the material of her cloak was not all of a kind. Here and there the green cloak was studded with sharp black thorns. The hem of Life’s cloak traced the mud beneath her and was thick with a pale brown crust of dirt and bits of root.
Upon Death’s approach, Life’s cloak wrapped itself protectively about her, its thorns extending, growing horny and massive, encrusting her over until all Death could see was the tip of her sister’s nose, a bit of flushed cheek and the angry rosebud of her mouth.
“Hello,” said Death cautiously, for her and her sister were on poor terms.
“What have you come to steal from me now?” asked guarded Life. Her words were harsh, but her tone of voice could not stop itself from being beautifully liquid, musical, like the cascading burble of a Highland stream.
And Death was reminded of how Life used to sing so prettily when they were children together, listening to the songs of the universe played upon their grand piano.
Again Life spoke as harshly as her melodious voice would permit. “I ask you again, Cruel Sister, which of my pets do you come to steal from me today?”
“None, Dear Sister,” breathed Death nervously, her breath coming out in clouds of white vapour, in this, her sister’s land.
She watched Life’s hood retract an inch or two and saw the flashing glint of dark, curious eyes.
“No, Sweet Sister, I come humbly before you to request a favour,” pleaded Death. She held out the bottle. Life quirked an eyebrow at her sister beneath the shadow of her thorny hood. The two sisters had always been competitive, but Death played a different sort of game with Life than she did with humanity. Life created things, Death destroyed them. Life created more things to replace the originals, with new improvements and adaptations. Then it was up to Death once more to find a way. The score was now in the billions on each side.
Life studied the bottle with all her focus. As her attention and power concentrated itself upon the locus of the Poet’s soul, the thorns of her cloak shrank back. Gradually her cloak parted to reveal her clothing underneath; fold after fold of moist, rubbery giant petal of every shad of red from palest pink to blood coloured crimson to a velvety dark maroon, nearly black. Like the skirt-like fins of a cuttlefish, the edges of the petals rippled restlessly on the air. As she breathed the petals pulsed and fell and it was impossible to know where she ended and her garments began.
Then, Life took the bottle into her warm sucking folds until Death could see it no longer. For an instant she believed she had been tricked. However, Life had not tricked her. She relished this opportunity to show up her sister and believed it was always good maintain others in your debt. One never knew when one would have to call in a favour.
After a brief time there was a rubbery sound beneath the pink skirts of life. Death watched the huge pink petals heave once, then part to reveal the Poet; healthy and whole again. More than whole, in fact, for Life had smoothed every trace of care her attendants Fear and Worry had stamped upon his elegant features in his years on Earth. He was healthier now than he had ever been as regular human. Furthermore, Life had rolled back the ravages of all disease in his body. Disease in Life’s eyes was just another part of herself; older, smaller, more numerous than some others, but nonetheless quite important.
The parts of the Poet’s soul that had grown twisted and ugly, deformed by the bitter fetters of dashed hopes, resumed their original pleasant shapes. Life bathed his mind, washed away the plaque of fear and the rot of depression, so that the Poet emerged from Life, innocent, happy and good. Never in his life had the Poet ever been so healthy, happy and whole.
And the first thing he saw in his new life was the last thing he’d beheld in his previous one; Death, in all her immortal glory.
The newly revived Poet was so overwhelmed by her beauty, he immediately fell upon his face at her feet. A brief second later, he found himself looking up at her again, for now that he had seen her, to block that glorious vision from his sight again, made him feel as if all the streetlamps of the world had been snuffed out at once.
Death smiled within herself. The flattering quaintness of his human disposition pleased her greatly.
“Stand,” commanded Death and the Poet stood. She surveyed his lovely human nakedness. “Do not prostrate yourself before me,” she said.
“My apologies,” he whispered, shyly. “It was only meant to show respect.”
“Well, it is tedious. If you truly feel for me as you say you do, than all you have to do to prove it to me is to accept the gifts I brought for you.”
Death removed a flat wooden box from her fur lined coat and gave it to him. His fingers trembled as they touched her cool white hands, small and perfect as the wings of a dove.
Within the box the Poet found two golden bracelets and two golden anklets.
“Please take them,” Death implored, “simple gifts to welcome you back to this world.”
“With pleasure, my Lady,” said the Poet and bowed to her.
“Now if you truly feel as you say, swear to me that you will never run from arms into the embrace of another.”
“Never!” cried the Poet, fervently, and he unclasped the clasp of one of the anklets and fastened it around his right ankle. The Poet did not notice the clasp vanish as it clicked in place, into a smoothly uniform golden “O.”
“Promise me,” said Death, “that you shall always use whatever power I give you with kindness, that you will never use it cruelly or with malicious intent, for I shall make you powerful amongst men, my Love.”
“Of course!” he cried and hurriedly clasped the other anklet around his left ankle.
Only two golden circlets remained in the silken lining of their flat wooden box. Secretly, Death thrilled inside to see how easily he adopted them, but bade herself to be patient. She could not tip her hand. He must accept the binds willingly, the elder had said, or their spells would not run true.
But before she could prompt the Poet again he said:
“And gladly shall I wear these other two for your pleasure my Lady,” and he took up the two remaining bracelets and placed one upon each wrist.
Joyfully, then, she clasped his hands in hers, her fingertips just brushing the enchanted metal, warm and liquid, alive beneath her touch.
“You were a great poet once,” she told him. “You wrote verse of love that enchanted paramours from one continent to another. Yet if you love me you shall not write of your love of another.”
“Why waist my energies on anything so ridiculous when you are all I desire, all I could ever desire,” sighed the Poet. “None dwells within the corner of my heart, but you whose loveliness outshines the light of a dozen suns and leaves me blind to the charms of any other. And so I will not pick up my pen nor even think a line upon the aspect of anything else, for none will ever move me, save thee.”
“And then it goes without saying,” sighed Death at last, touching the last of the golden bracelets, “that you will lay this hand upon no other flesh, but that of the woman before you?”
“None other but thyself for all other flesh must seem putrid and ugly, when compared against thine own, for thou art Perfect Death and never age or weaken or decay.”
Then, as the last of the four enchanted bangles clasped itself into place about his wrist, she allowed herself a genuine smile at last. She had bound him to her with unbreakable hoops of gold quite easily, even though the Elders had warned her of the difficulty of such an undertaking. They had underestimated her, she thought, believed her weak simply because she was young. Yet the Poet had stood and done his part more beautifully than she had even dared hope. Now he was bound to her for eternity and she had nothing to fear.
With a great sigh of release, she took him up in her arms and flew him to her private chambers, rooms high up in the castle. There, she showed him the pleasure of her gratitude.
And so it was that the Poet took up residence with Death in her white and shining castle of bone and loved her with the totality of a newborn babe for its mother. She was his entire world, as the giver of all that brought him sustenance, life and happiness.
In the months that followed he penned many an ode upon the theme of his love for her. His verses sang of her beauty, her kindness, and the character of her mercy. When she was gone desire flooded his senses, visions of her creamy white thighs holding him close between them captivated his mind, until she returned and made his visions real once more.
Eventually, she came to trust him enough to take him with her on occasion in her excursions into the world of men. Still, there were things she believed he was not yet primed to see. Rarely did she consent to let him watch her as she worked. Too much of it, she worried, could not be understood with human eyes and so much could easily be misinterpreted. He was part of the other, happier side of her life and she had no wish for him to get interested in her work as Death.
Yet, still the Poet pleaded to be let into every aspect of her life, curious and even a little jealous of her time away from him. Eventually his large puppyish eyes wore her down and one day she took him on an outing to a little English fishing village where a very old woman, matriarch to a large fisher family, had gathered her dear ones around her to say good-bye. Death welcomed her quietly into her arms sometime that night in the midst of the old woman’s weary journey between asleep and awake.
Afterwards the Poet watched the family gather around crying; tears of loss and sadness yes, but also tears of relief at the end of her pain and celebration at a life long and proudly lived. Within the hearts of these descendants he could see some small fragments of their matriarch’s soul still embedded within them, fragments that Death would never collect, that would live forever in the human world, passed on like genes from generation to generation.
Of course, Death had handpicked the passing of the old woman for the Poet to see. Her work was not always so pleasant.
Her service to mankind was necessary, but that did not mean that all humans welcomed her as this old woman hand. Most humans she thought little worth her compassion, mercy or interest. She thought them silly and ridiculous in their pretensions. Walking in the ice garden of her palace she often regaled the Poet with the many idiotic strategies the humans took to avoid her, like having their heads frozen after death or inventing fantasies about a heaven where the pious live forever. Just speaking about such infantile schemes made her laugh uproariously.
She failed to notice the normally loquacious Poet’s silence at these times. He did not know why he could not bring himself to laugh at such foibles or why Death’s laughter suddenly made him feel so angry. Although he could not remember anymore he knew that he knew, in the seat of his soul, somewhere, what it was like to feel that desperation.
At other times, though, the Poet marveled that he could once have been a party of such a ridiculous people.
How ludicrous, that he had once curled his hair in papers, dieted, and sprayed on perfume in a fruitless effort to mask the scents of his body. It was very hard for him to imagine himself as one who rode upon the backs of other beasts and rutted with ugly mortal women as the cows in the field.
Death traveled widely on the wind. There was no country closed to her. Now when Death flew from place to place, the Poet rode in her wake like the fish of the great rivers. The Poet soon discovered that although no mortal man could see him since his transformation, the Poet could still see them. He watched them now, in a way he never had as a mortal man, when he had been too absorbed in the turbulent eddies of his own emotion and struggle for survival. It amazed him that these creatures had been able to do so much despite the constraints and hurdles they faced every day. Death mocked humanity mercilessly, yet the more the Poet saw, the more he came to admire them in their tenacity.
The Poet could not fly on his own, but he did not mind so much, for he had discovered, much to his surprise, after observing a foot race in Ethiopia that he could run. This discovery brought him much joy. He ran, rampant, wild and untiring in the fields, while his indulgent lover flew above. Death watched his childish glee as he proudly announced his achievement. Death listened with great fondness as he spoke. She loved her sweet Poet who had awakened her to the beauty of the mundane things of the world, who had allowed her to see her surroundings with new eyes, eyes that made everything seem magical and exciting.
Most of all she loved to hear the Poet recite his verses in praise of her.
She was not the only one who treasured those times. Watching her eyes half closed as she swayed slightly to the rhyme and the rhythm, the Poet knew a rare sense of power over her. In the word-weaved world of his song her supremacy receded.
Death and her Poet returned to Lake Geneva nearly a year after the fateful day that had seen the Poet’s body burn on the pyre.
Death had purposely avoided the Alpine area for months. With so many people dying at the same time all over the world she could not come in person to collect every soul. Her magically automated creatures performed most of her work, however she still had to keep in practice. Operations required her personal observation and fine tuning from time to time.
The Alps worried her because she feared to re-awaken the Poet’s old memories of his human life. She saw how no human man could exist without other people making demands of him. She told herself that no sense of duty, guilt, friendship or love to anyone from his past life could ever take him away from her, but still her mind would not be satisfied. At these times, she was grateful for the sturdy bonds that glimmered at his wrists and ankles. As time past though, her confidence in her sister’s power grew. Death came to accept the fact that his soul rose fresh in her Life’s arms with no memory of a past or any old emotional connections. They would have to come here eventually, she reasoned, and there was a malfunction in operations she just had to attend to.
Death watched the Poet’s face closely as the top turrets of Chillon castle hove into sight. The scene of this, his friends most famous poem, seemed to rouse no light of recognition in his blue eyes. They remained as mild and unperturbed as a cloudless sky.
She had no time to take him on her rounds this time. With the current malfunction she had not been able to pre-select the deaths he would see. There might be something that might unsettle him if he was not properly prepared. She left him among the green foothills of the mountains.
The Poet sat among green fields speckled with tiny white daisies and shiny yellow buttercups. The little flowers were dotted with butterflies, opening and closing their orange wings to the sun. Although the green grass was calming and rubbery and the winds were cool, the Poet was restless. He had not wanted to leave his lady’s side when she went to go about her work. He sat, plucking the mountain grass, mulling it over, feeling the hurt of his exclusion most keenly, when his thoughts were disturbed by the melodious sound of birdsong. He looked up to see a bright mountain bird enthroned on high in the boughs of a spruce tree.
The bird sang its song and the Poet wrote in his book of its exquisite beauty and musicality, always comparing it, in the refrain, to Death, his exquisite patron.
Observing this, the bird cocked its head and swooped down to find out what the Poet was doing. Surreptitiously, the bird pecked at some seeds on the mountain path, while still keeping one beady black eye on the Poet.
“Hello, there little fellow,” the Poet greeted him. The bird lifted its head from its pecking and suddenly, its beady black eyes widened with recognition. “You!” squawked the bird. “It is you!” He trilled with joyful song at the recognition of his old friend..
“Who?” asked the Poet.
“Hail to thee blithe spirit,” quoted the bird. “You wrote that about me.”
“I did?” asked the Poet.
The bird nodded and quoted the entire poem to the very last stanza. “If winter comes spring cannot be far behind,” he finished with a great show of solemnity.
The Poet stared awestruck at the small creature as the last line of the poem rang out through the valley, echoing off the stark gray rock of the peaks. Then the bird and the Poet sat in silence until the final echoes of the song died away.
“I wrote that?” the Poet asked the bird. “But it’s so sad!”
“You were sad,” said the bird matter-of-factly.
“All the time?” asked the poet.
“No, you were happy, too.”
“Sad… and happy. How could I have been both at the same time?”
“Who knows? Humankind is strange,” chirped the bird and rustled his feathers in a way that would have been construed as a shrug had he been human. “Your lives are very complicated, always worrying about this or that. More things to worry over than I have feathers on my whole body.”
“I suppose I am glad I can’t remember. It sounds awful.”
“Maybe, maybe not. Who am I to tell? Perhaps it is human nature to be thus, just as it is birdly nature to fly, pull worms from the ground and sing to the sunshine. Yet, I must say it still seems very strange to me how you humans subvert your natural inclinations and scorn that which your body craves.”
“Yes, I have noticed this about humans,” said the Poet, “and it puzzles me. I think perhaps they are afraid.”
“Of what?” asked the curious bird.
“God, the devil, being executed. Social ostrascism, I suppose.”
“Social ostracism? Is that a thing like a fox?” replied the bird sympathetically. “I myself am quite afraid of foxes.”
“I myself would not hesitate to satisfy any of my desires should they only present themselves,” said the Poet. A strange sort of fire seemed to burn in his eyes then and suddenly, without knowing why the little bird felt quite afraid. Without a word, he flapped his small blue wings and rose into the air.
“Where are you going bird?” cried the Poet. “Come back! I wish to speak with you a little longer!”
“Ha!” teased the bird, comfortable once again now that he was in its own territory of sky. “Catch me if you can!”
The Poet watched in frustration as the bird winged its way further up into the sky. The Poet jumped up to try to catch it, but the little bluebird still remained tantalizingly just out of reach. “Come down from there!” he cried, but it was no use and the bird flapped its way up from the valley laughing.
“I cannot fly,” thought the Poet, “but if it’s a chase he wants then perhaps I can satisfy him in another way!” So saying, he began to run. He chased after the bird past the valley, over the foothills, through the plash of a clear mountain stream, over a stony cataract, beyond another valley, this one of stones as big as human children, always keeping the bird in sight, though it was always just a little too high, a little too fast to catch. However, the Poet was confident he could catch the impudent little creature in the end. The bird was a creature of the Earth, no matter that it flew. It would tire or grow hungry in due time. The Poet was not a mortal man and he could run forever, never needing to stop for rest or water.
The Poet was so focused on chasing after the blithe spirited bird, that he failed to notice something very important. As the Poet chased the bird, he grew farther and farther away from the mountain village Death was visiting. Although not aware of it, he was running from Death, a thing he had vowed on his very first day of life as a spirit never to do. In the sheer exhilaration of running through thorns and grasses and lakes and mountains the wind rushing past his face, whipping his hair out like a flag behind him, he forgot about the thin golden bracelets and the vow that bound him. He barely noticed the unpleasant prickling sensation in his right ankle as he stepped in a stream, nor the slight twinge of pain as he mounted yet another hill at top speed. He did not look down and see the golden anklet above his right foot begin to glow with inner heat. He did not realize it was flowing now and tightening itself around his ankle. Eventually, though the strange feeling of pins-and-needles in his foot. Only when he could no longer feel the grass between his toes, did he look down. He was burning in liquid golden fire. The band around his ankle had tightened, squeezing the life out of his foot. His eyes streamed tears as he tried to blink back the pain. Then he tripped and stumbled, falling into the dust and mud of a dried-up riverbed, which was where Death found him hours later.
Sobbing, Death swept him up in her arms and flew into the black night sky, brilliant with stars unobscured by the lights of any city.
The Poet woke as they flew. He felt her warm arms around him and shivered even harder.
“My poor, foolish poet,” muttered Death into his sweat dampened hair and kissed his feverish brow with her soft cherry-blood lips. “My foolish foolish man.”
In her presence once more, the golden band loosened around his ankle, but still his fever raged and the skin the band had burned blistered raw and red.
When they returned to her bower Death wrapped him in soft blankets of whitest fur. Still he shivered.
At last, fearing for his life, she took him to her sister Life’s green garden, for in her love for him she knew no shame or pride. But once Death got to Life’s house, the garden was locked up and magically barred against all intruders. Life was out, which suited Death just fine.
Silently, she snuck inside. In the dark of the garden at midnight she walked through the rows of flowers and medicinal plants with the Poet in her arms. Their green stems turned to brown beneath Death’s feet as she passed, their leaves yellowing, drying and curling into dust, frost covering the more distant flowers, until Death reached to circular pool in the middle of Life’s garden. Her sister’s pride and joy. The water was completely still, reflecting the big new moon. Death had heard of this pool, but never set eyes on it. She looked into its depths and saw that the pool went down to unimaginable depths. Layer after layer of aquatic life, countless creatures even in the blackness of the deepest water, down down down to the tiny tuber worms whose deceptively fragile bodies could tolerate the pressure of a fathom of water pressing down upon them.
Uncowed, she took the Poet, holding him by the arms and submerged his body up to the waist in the waters of life. At length his eyes became cleared of fever. Sopping wet, Death pulled him out and wrapped him in furs once more. Then she spirited him off back to her lands, leaving her sister none the wiser.
Back in Death’s gray castle the Poet slowly began to recover. Death tended to him personally, feeding him the strengthening soul-meat of animals she had called to herself personally. He grew strong enough to follow her again, limping behind her as she tended to her crystalline garden.
Death thought her poor Poet adapted to his impairment quite well. His leg no longer hurt him. She worried that the sight of his damaged ankle and the fact that he could not run, might sadden or anger him. She watched for signs of sorrow or fury in his face, relieved she saw none.
Death was right in a way. The Poet was not sad or angry, but as he limped along, clipping the blue stalactites beside Death in her vaunted crystal caves, there was something so familiar in the whole motion that he had to stop and stare. Something, some little bit of memory perhaps, nagged at him like the slightly unraveled hem of a sweater or the rasp-rasp of a moth’s wings trapped between the windowpane and the screen.
In his brief life as a man had he walked in such a way? Yes? No? Blue eyes-- not his own? Clearer, less muddy. A friend perhaps, afflicted so?
The spectre of a curly haired, petulant, man-child with a limp began to stalk the Poet’s dreams at night. The dreams of the strange, sidewalking man did not frighten the Poet. In fact he was pleased to see him, happy to be reminded of him even in his waking hours. In his dreams the Poet’s new-old friend wore a linen shirt of Greek design and a moue of distaste on his oddly feminine mouth at everything he saw within Death’s castle. Comments flipped off his tongue in quick succession; snide, funny ironic comments and biting witty criticisms that had the Poet in stitches laughing, punctuated by the smacking of a riding crop against the polished leather of heavy black boots—a soldier’s boots?-- glossy with well-tended shine.
“My poor mad fellow,” sighed the curly haired man-child as they played billiards in the pool room of the Poet’s mind. This too seemed familiar, as if the Poet had been called Mad before; not by this man, but by others, many, many others. “What has this vile strumpet done to you, my Heart, a man of high principle and soaring intellect,” the curly haired man-child sighed again, “You, who knew no god, whom I once styled a god among men! How thy star hath fallen! To find you now-- a mouse among gods!” The Poet’s old-new friend laughed. “You don’t even remember who I really am, do you?”
The Poet shook his head.
“Then I suppose we really are a pair of lame devils aren’t we?” The man-child laughed bitterly. “My apologies, but I’d never heard of the family curse transferring to a friend.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” replied the Poet. “There is no such thing.”
“Ah, but you haven’t met my family,” replied the young man with a twinkle in his eye.
“I don’t need to!” said the Poet channeling an underground resource of passion on the subject he forgot he possessed. “There are no devils, lame or otherwise. Not to mention that if there were, I would certainly not consider you one! There are no curses either. Any misfortune you and your ancestors have suffered is more likely due to insanity, chance, gambling, drink and living in a non-permissive society. There is no curse. No doom hangs over you but the one all must face in the end.”
“All but you,” said the man, an enigmatic smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “All but you.”
Time passed and the healing completed itself. His limp cleared up and with it, the strange dreams of the man-child with the funny walk and curly hair.
The Poet wrote for Death again. He wrote sonnets and villanelles, ballads and psalms, free verse and blank verse and songs in forms only just invented by him. He wrote more beautifully than ever and Death cried at the poignant thought that she had almost lost him. Her tears hardened into little drops of shining diamond as they fell. She caught them in her white satin handkerchief and hid them away in her pockets, hoping the Poet would not notice how much he had affected her.
But the Poet knew. Secretly it pleased him. There were other secret things that Death did, that the Poet also knew and these did not please him at all.
He knew that Death had found the bluebird that had lured him away and he knew what Death had done to it. He had seen the tiny, hollow bones in the pocket of her furs amidst the diamonds of her tears.
It was a year and a half before Death and the Poet found themselves in Europe again, this time in England.
Death came for the harvest of starving Irish souls fleeing the famine on their island. She culled from the slums of London and Liverpool where these poor folk came to look for work. She skimmed them off the overcrowded passenger ships on their way to America and lapped them up in fouled gin and shattered hopes. She came to the mills and the factories to lift the burdens of scores of weary children.
Her sister, Life had been there before her, Death noticed. It was Life who had sweetened the well waters with thriving new breeds of micro-organisms, bloomed in the moldy loaves of bread and bread in the scum of the sewer water.
The Poet did not go with her on these rounds. Instead he wandered about the city. He never strayed far. He did not have to. It seemed all the entertainment, art and diversion he needed was here, within the span of just a few square miles. No human language was unintelligible to him in his present incarnation, but to read poetry in English, which he had quickly guessed to be his native tongue never ceased to fill him with delight.
It was the Poet’s habit of late to spend his mornings at the bookshops when Death was on her round in London. It was in just such a bookshop that the Poet made a startling discovery. On that particular day he was busying himself catching up on all the newest poetry. He founded it disappointing, prosaic and dull. He read poems that tried to shock and disgust the reader. He found them sad and insignificant and worst of all, ugly. He was about to leave, when he noticed another person in the bookshop. Near the counter, talking to the shop clerk, was a dark haired woman. She gestured to the slim volume in her hands.
“It was his!” she insisted to the clerk.
“Are you sure?” He glanced at her dubiously.
The woman flipped the book open to the frontpiece. Above the pompously engraved title was a crude drawing of a snake. Her finger shook as she pointed to it. “Snake, like his name, Byshe. It was his signature. It’s in all his books.”
She tried to hold the bookseller’s gaze. He looked away, embarrassed for her. “No thank you,” he said. “Good day.”
The dark haired woman left the shop, her cheeks pale, moving quickly past him. She was young, the Poet noticed, younger than her weary voice had led him to believe.
He followed her as she wove her way through the narrow streets. She stopped at what had been a fashionable address fifty years before and entered a saggy old mansion. On the top floor, in a room decked out in faded splendor, an old lady was stashed between mounds of pillows and piles of blankets lay upon
“What have you brought me?” demanded the elderly gentlewoman.
“I have some old poems,” said the woman from the shop. She was in fact the elderly gentlelady’s nurse and companion. “I was thinking of bringing something new, but this old book used to be--”
“Read,” interrupted the old woman.
The younger woman began to read.
It took but a few words for the Poet to recognize the poem. Hail to thee. It was what the Poet wrote to the bluebird, back when the Poet was still a man.
The woman read with increasing passion, her musical voice rising with emotion. By the third stanza the old gentlelady was already asleep, but still the dark haired woman read.
Tears stood in her eyes, and the Poet could see the words he could no longer remember writing recalled to her some private sorrow.
He followed her back to her plain little room, which was joined by a door to the old woman’s. He saw her narrow bed. On a cord above dangled a brass bell that the old woman used to summon her. The young woman lay down upon the bed and curled herself up around a notebook with a pencil.
With an expression of great pain, he watched the dark haired woman uncinch the band about her waist. Under the waistband, where her white laundered shirt met the rough blue calico of her skirt was a protruding bump that should not have been. It was not in the right place for pregnancy. It was not in the right place for anything healthy. She sighed, unaware of his presence as she released herself from her stays, flowing free from her bonds, the pain waning. She curled up around a pencil and a dog-eared little notebook. He watched her scribbled sad thoughts upon the paper. The Poet, who’d been taught by Death to read the signs of those marked for her consumption, could see the young woman’s fate. He did not have to read the words. It was plain to see, writ large in the deep hollows of her cheeks, the gray shadows under her eyes.
Bit by bit, Death’s sister, Life, was killing this woman, through her very profusion. Death had been keen to tell the Poet all about it. There were obscene growths that kept on multiplying, greedy tumours that fed upon the tissues of the rest of the body. This amorphous lump would grow in strength, live and multiply and multiply again until it had drained all the strength from the body that sustained it.
He could not watch her anymore, so he turned to face the wall. There he saw faded lithographs of idyllic country scenes and a roughly done portrait of a man in an oval frame. Despite the artist’s negligible talent, the Poet recognized someone familiar in it. Himself.
“Who are you? Where did you get this?” he asked the young woman in a passion. Yet she noticed nothing, for she could not see him nor hear his voice.
Exhausted, from even this short bit of writing, she let the book slip through her fingers to the floor. Her eyelids fluttered closed and she rolled over onto her back. For the first time the Poet got a good straight look at her face and recognized someone else; a woman he had loved once, a long, long time ago. The memory hit him like a blade straight through his heart. He had loved this woman, had grown tired of this woman, had left this woman for another and this woman—this woman had killed herself. Because of him! He sank to the floor. He had been Death’s helper all along then, he thought bitterly, even as a mortal man.
But this woman wasn’t dead. Not yet, anyway. So how could it be? The answer was simple, really. All he had to do was read the name upon the notebook. Shelley. His daughter.
He read in her book of a beautiful soul so much in love with the world. He read of her hopes and her fears and all the dreams she’d had yet to realize. She was not afraid of Death she wrote. How could one be afraid of something one had never experienced? Pain was something she had experienced and it frightened her, the knowledge of what was to come before the end. She promised herself she would wait until the old woman died before she did anything about it.
Thus, the saddened Poet read the pages of his daughter’s soul as she slept, until finally, he turned a page over and reached a blank sheet. And then, as he always did when confronted by a blank page, the Poet wrote. Not words in praise of Death’s beauty as was his custom, but words to speak to the heart of this young woman, to somehow, someway, give her the hope and the love she should have always had from him.
He wrote a few pages back to her and returned to Death’s velvety embrace.
Although his heart still swelled with love and pride for his pale lady, something else was growing in him now. Somewhere, in a dusty little corner of his heart another type of love was growing, small at first, but growing larger, a fatherly, protective sort of love that made his left hand ache. The Poet could hide his feelings from Death, but the golden bind of his left hand knew his heart.
Yet he had no desire to wish away his love for his daughter, even as the bracelet about his left wrist grew tighter with each passing day.
He wrote often in her book. He wrote humourous verses and drew funny little drawings to make her laugh. He wrote rousing speeches to bring her out of her stupor and inspiring rhymes to soothe her loneliness. He wrote and he wrote, and still it did not feel like enough to him. Still, he knew the tumour continued to grow within her. As the days passed the elderly woman she cared for grew increasingly feeble and unresponsive. With each successive day a little more of her mistress seemed to slip away. He could see, even if his daughter could not, Death’s creatures at the gates of the old house, sniffing the air, tasting to see if the old woman was ready yet. “Not long now,” he heard them whisper amongst themselves. “Not long.”
The automatic, dispassionate nature of the Death’s creatures disturbed him, but what really made the Poet shiver was when one of the creatures turned its yellow eyes on the young woman. “Not long now,” it muttered to itself. “Not long now.”
It was summer now and the nights were hot. The Poet’s daughter had dragged her narrow bed to the window, hoping to catch a little of night’s cooling breeze as she slept. Then, as the moon rose in the sky, the Poet broke his third binding vow and touched the flesh of a woman other than Death. He touched the place on the side of her abdomen near the hip bone where he had seen the swell of that awful bump.
He closed his eyes and remembered the day he had pushed through the layers of damp petals to enter the world again. He reached down through the layers of skin, then fat, then muscle, and at last bone to find the over-profusion of Life that was slowly killing her. He found it and using the small store of the power Death had bequeathed him, withered it, until it stopped. Then he plucked it out through her flesh, a gray, lifeless ball. He squeezed it in his hands. It turned to dust and disappeared. He gazed down at her sleeping. With an expression of deepest longing, he reached out to smooth the furrows of her pained brow and his hand shot back with pain. Staring down at it he saw the band of gold, slithering molten about his right wrist, circling tighter and tighter and tighter again.
Then he ran from the house of the old lady into the street.
“I’m not in love with her!” he screamed at his bonds in protest. “I did not do it for myself! I did it to save her life! Stop your magic, I beg of you! Death will understand. She will forgive me! I know she will! I am Death’s consort magic bands! Obey me!”
But the bands had no ears to hear him and no intelligence with which to obey. By the time the Poet crawled back to Death’s castle he was bleeding profusely. The Poet bled the thin, glistening, golden blood of a spirit, leaving a trail behind him as he heaved his way up the stairs to Death’s bower, where at last he collapsed on the white furs of the bed. Then he waited for Death to come.
Death saw the trail of gold that wound its way up to her tower. As she flew with increasing speed and horror up the stone steps to her chamber, the shining stains upon the walls turned from gold to pink to red. By the time she reached the topmost landing, whatever had sparkled in the liquid had dribbled out and gone. At last she reached her door to see the door knob smeared a dull brownish-red, all spark of immortality fled.
Then she found him at last— his face as white as the furs it rested on.
“Who has done this to you my Love?” roared Death in a fury. “I shall rend him limb from limb!”
But the Poet just looked up at her with hollow eyes from beneath a pile of blood-stained furs and laughed a hollow, bitter laugh.
Death flung the furs covering the Poet away. Beside him lay his own right hand. Clutched in the shriveled remnant of his left hand, he held a golden ball. It was his right bracelet, which having done its work, had closed in on itself, into a perfect sphere.
With a cry of despair Death bundled her love up into his furs and flew with top speed to the domain of her sister. They arrived at Life’s door, but even though Death could see from the lights at the windows and the sound of laughter on the breeze that her sister was home, Life would not open the gate for her.
Death hammered with her fists upon the door, but the gate was made of living thornbushes and the up-climbing roots of banyan trees and would not open for her.
“Please sister!” cried Death. “Have mercy! Open up for me!” Her tears fell in sharp diamonds slicing through plant stems and newborn spring leaves and severing tree roots as they rained down upon the earth. At last Life could take no more of Death’s destruction and appeared at the gate to meet her sister.
“Please,” Death begged of Life. “Please let me take him to your waters so that he may live.” Life looked without pity upon the bloodied form of the Poet, as Death lay him down upon the grass, yellowing already beneath her naked feet.
“Sister, you have played me false,” said Life. “Did you think that I would not notice you had snuck into my garden when I was out. You have withered my new plants and polluted my precious Well of Life, causing the extinction of some of my most prized aquatic species, species I can never recreate again.”
“But surely,” begged Death, “this man is your creation too! Why should he die for my mistakes? He is the only one of his kind, too.”
“His kind,” scoffed Life, “is an unnatural forgery of the living. I made him only at your suggestion. He would not be in the desperate state he is now if not for the binds you marred him with. You are the instrument of his downfall, not I not. You, who in your arrogance thought you could control life.”
“And that is it?” wept desperate Death. “There is nothing you will do to help him?”
“Nothing,” said Life.
“Then he will soon be dead,” said Death.
“Perhaps, perhaps not.”
“He is human, after all, Sister. The breed has the distinct tendency to find ways around the boundaries our cousin Fate believes to be set in stone. They grow and adapt with a speed I have always found rather shocking. I have asked my predecessor what he did when he made, but he claims to have forgotten.” Then, as if this concluded the conversation, Life threw her cloak of thorns over her shoulder and was gone.
In deepest sorrow, Death returned the Poet to her bower. Already, she could see that the glow of immortality had long since faded from his sallow features.
In silence she lay him down upon her bed beside the golden ball and the severed hand. Then she sat down beside him to wait. Soon her creatures would return from their duties, their sacks full with souls for her to consume. She would wait for them. She could not bare to steal the Poet’s soul herself.
The Poet lay shivering beneath the furs, conscious once more.
“Please,” whispered Death. “Please tell me why. Did I not give you everything? The love of a goddess and a life without illness or end. What could a mortal lover give that I did not? Tell me my love, do not leave me to wonder for all eternity.”
The Poet took a shuddering breath and through teeth clenched in pain and anger, told Death the story his daughter and how through killing the other life inside her he had given her back her own.
Death bowed her head. “My love, I was wrong to bind you,” she said, “and now my folly is killing you. There must be something I can do to set you free before it is too late.”
So Death left her lover’s side and went to the realm of the Elders. There she remained for three days and three nights until she had learned the spell to undo his remaining bonds. She returned to her castle.
Death gazed down at the Poet within the furs on her bed, his eyes closed, his breath shallow. Her creatures hovered round the room, their sacks prepared. They whispered “soon soon soon” upon the air. Then Death performed the unbinding spell upon the Poet, wishing she could do more than just let him die without chains, cursing herself and her elder’s vile advice for what they had done to him.
At last the bonds were undone. Like golden snakes they uncoiled themselves from about his wrist and ankles and dropped softly to the floor, They slithered away in sinuous motion, back to wherever they came from, the perfect golden sphere on the bed all that remained.
Death waited. And then something happened that surprised even her. As soon as his bonds were undone, the Poet seemed to hearten. With every breath and every hour he seemed to grow in strength, the colour return ever so slightly to his face.
Death’s creatures retreated, but not before she made them bandage his maimed hand and stump to hide the dreadful sight from her eyes. His strength waxed and waned again and again throughout the long night, Death’s creatures returning and retreating in a wearying parade. But when morning came all could see that his strength truly had returned and Death’s creatures left the castle, to go out into the world to perform more urgent tasks.
The next day he talked and the day after that he stood and weakly walked about the room. After a few weeks he ranged throughout the castle once more, but though his strength returned, the glow of immortality did not. His right hand, from which all the verses he wrote to the dark haired woman who was his daughter had issued forth, remained a withered claw. His left hand, from which had risen the power to kill the evil growth inside her, was buried behind the castle in the heart of the crystal garden. But the golden ball of the fallen bind he kept always beside him now, at his bedside when he slept and in his pocket when he walked, for he could not bare to be apart from it for a moment.
The Poet spoke little in the weeks following his convalescence. Death tried to make him happy. She read to him, for he could hold no book, the most exciting stories of a thousand ages, but nothing she read seemed to hold his attention. She planned great feasts for him in the castle’s unused dining hall, with the most sumptuous dishes of a thousand cultures and ethnic cuisines, but he barely touched the food his now mortal body required.
Then Death read back to him the poems he wrote of his love for her and his happiness at over their blissful state. He seemed so sad, that she wanted to remind him of the joyous times they shared together. His mood only seemed to get blacker. She instructed one of her creatures to take dictation should the fancy strike him to compose some new poetry. The creature returned to her with an empty pad of pair and an unused stylus.
Instead, the Poet spent hours gazing into the golden ball, seeing things invisible to all others. He watched the story of his human life, given to the bind through the life’s blood he’d shed upon it, the moment it closed in upon itself and severed his dying hand from his living body. Now he watched the triumphs and tragedies of his friends and family parade across the convex surface of the golden ball, transfixed by the endless drama of his former life.
It disturbed Death, the Poet’s fascination, with what she saw as the instrument of his near destruction. He protested so loudly when she suggested to him that they throw it away, that she let him keep it, if only to appease him. Secretly though, it gladdened her that there was still something that appeared to rouse some feeling from him. So little seemed to bring him joy these days.
Eventually, she decided that the spectre of his missing hand had to be at the core of his malaise. So, eager to lift his mood, she asked him if he might like her creatures to fashion a replacement.
Then something like a spark lit in his eye and he agreed readily, wondering out loud why he had not thought of such a thing.
So Death went to the elders once more and spoke most pitifully of her plight. One amongst their number, a most cunning spirit, sifted through his remembrance to recall a young queen he’d once tempted with silver hands. With clever craft he fashioned a similar hand for Death’s Poet, all out of shining silver.
The Poet pronounced himself pleased with Death’s gift and sat upon her furs by the fire and read with a book in his hand the whole day.
When night fell he took the golden ball in his new hand and slipped it into his jacket pocket. He walked out into the castle courtyard. Everything was covered in the purest of freshly fallen snow. As more snow sifted down from the sky above, he felt the flakes fall upon his shoulders, then wet upon his eyelashes, cold for the first time since he had been reborn. The deceptively gentle, soft-looking snow, charged over the tops of his boots and spiked his feet with shocking cold.
Upon the canvas of snow he walked, writing his farewell to Death with his footprints, until at last he was done. Then he walked out through the high iron gates, leaving Death’s domain behind him.
The next day, Death rose to one of those glorious winter mornings of whitest snow and bluest sky. Sunlight shone down on her land, unhindered by a single cloud, and glittered on the newly iced surface of the snow like sugar, sprinkled on a cake. She flung open her window to gaze down upon the beauty of her winter domain and footprint- written words below; a short verse with which to say good-bye.
The Poet walked out of the Death’s kingdom into London-town and it was there that he went to a funeral.
Death of course, was not present. Death is not generally in attendance at funerals, her business concluded long before.
It was the funeral of the old gentlelady, the employer of the Poet’s daughter. In the church, the dark haired young woman stood at her pew, eyes glowing with joy, mind filled with happiness at the petal of every flower, pleasure at each note sung by the choir, and ecstasy in the very molecules of burning incense curling their meandering way into her nostrils and the taste of sticky marmalade from breakfast still fixed to her upper lip. Underneath her hands the coarse grain of the pew-back prickled her fingers and she shivered with delight, her senses awakened by the beauty of the world she thought she would never feel again.
She had little money and no employment now, but did not care, her mind still filled with wonder at her very existence, as if she was a newborn babe.
After the funeral the Poet followed her back to the door of the old gentlelady’s house where she went inside. It had been warm and close in the church, but outside in the street even his missing hand seemed to feel the cold and damp. Shivering, he knocked upon the door with his silver hand.
The dark haired woman came to the door. She saw a man upon the stair dressed in clothes of antique fashion. “Hello? May I help you?” the dark haired woman asked.
“May I come in?” inquired the stranger.
The young woman thought about it. The old lady's house was empty now, the few servants that had been left, gone off to take up new positions in other houses. Her trunk was packed. She would leave the next day and the old gentlelady's children, whom the dark haired woman had never met, would take possession of the house and sell it. She supposed it was kind of them to let her stay this long. On an ordinary day she would not have let the gentleman in, alone in the house as she was, but there was something so familiar about him, that she wondered if he was one of the old gentlelady's friends she had seen months before. It had been a long time since the house had had any visitors. She knew he had been at the funeral. There was a piece of black crepe paper tied about his old fashioned hat and a black band upon his arm. His hands were in his pockets, his shoulders hunched up against the biting wind.
“Outside it is cold and wet,” said the man, “and I have recently been ill. Might I come in to warm up a little by your fire, before I make my long journey back home?”
“Come in,” said the young woman and the Poet came in. He stomped his wet boots upon the doormat and shrugged his damp coat off upon the floor. When he lifted his hand to remove his hat she gave a little gasp, for she saw his hand was silver.
The Poet noticed her staring. “Do not concern yourself, dear lady, it is no witchcraft, I assure you. I injured my natural hands trying to save a person's life.”
“Come sit by the fire,” she said and brought him a cup of the cider she had just been heating up. “What a terrible sacrifice, noble sir” she murmured. “Were you able to save the person in the end?”
“Yes,” said the Poet as the pleasant warmth of the cider spread through his chilled body.
“And was the person grateful?”
“Indeed,” he smiled. “She was.”
“She?” asked the young woman, perplexed, for she had imagined the awful event to have occurred somewhere distant where men fought and lost their lives and limbs in battle. She stared into the fire, thrashing against the grate. And wondered whether she would have had the courage to do something as brave herself knowing the cost would be so great. Unbidden, words came to her lips before she could snatch them back, “Was it worth it? All that pain? Just to save one life?”
“Yes,” he said and his smile grew, as the warmth of the cider and something else, something undefinable, flushed his face. “It truly was.”
She watched the visitor finish his cider. He held the cup in his two hands; the right, a withered, ugly, living claw, that trembled as it gripped the cup; the left, a beautiful creation of sleek silver, stiff and dead.
“Come, you must be famished,” she the Poet's daughter. “Tomorrow my poor old mistress's son and daughter will take possession of this house and I shall be turned out, but while I still have a roof to welcome a stranger, I shall.”
So she lead him to the kitchen and they ate together, the young woman and her visitor, quiet now. Without conversation to distract, her the young woman’s thoughts turned to her present dilemma. She thought of where she might spend the next night with her purse so light of coin and worried.
When he had eaten the food she set before him, the Poet pushed his plate away and spoke.
“Do you have any money?” he asked.
Terrified she was about to be ravished or robbed, the young woman shook her head and began to cry. “Please sir, please don't hurt me.”
Gently, his heart much touched by her tears, he put his arms around her, and awkwardly stroked her hair. “Hush now,” the Poet said. “I would never harm you. I've come to help you.”
The dark haired woman nodded and thought, “how odd it is to be so comforted by a stranger. Has he really come so far to stroke my hair and help me? How could a poor man with no proper hands help me anyway? But why does my heart believe him when he says it? And why do I feel like I have been waiting for this man my whole life simply to come to me and stroke my hair? Yet I know not who he is, not even his name.
“I can help you,” the Poet repeated. Then, into the pocket of his damp antique jacket, he plunged his withered claw it emerged holding a round, glowing object. Shyly, he brought it forward and the golden sphere sprang from his hand. It rolled across the table to where the Poet's daughter sat and dropped into her lap.
“It is partly yours anyway,” he said by way of explanation. “If not for you, it would not exist today in the form it is now.”
The dark-haired young woman starred at the golden sphere between her hands. It was strangely warm. Images shone on its highly polished surface which looked like reflections of the room around them. Upon closer inspection though, she saw that the room in the globe wasn't really the one she sat in and the reflection of the woman looking back at her wasn't her. Though the resemblance was close, the hair and clothes were...with a shock, the dark-haired young woman realized she was looking at her mother around her own age. Through the golden ball the Poet's daughter stared into the past. She saw her mother in the arms of the man who now sat beside her. It was him, she was sure of it, though he looked somewhat younger and still had normal hands. Hands that held a squalling newborn baby. She could see the back of its little head poking out up from the blankets in his arms, crowned with a wispy spiral of dark brown hair. She heard his voice as he soothed the baby in his arms, the same as the voice she had heard that day and knew he was her father. Still she said nothing, but remained transfixed by the golden ball as the past played across its surface. She saw a man who left her mother for another. She saw a man who tried in vain against the courts of the land to claim her after her mother's death. She saw a man bowed in defeat, turn his back upon the country that stole his daughter, and go into exile forever. She saw a man in a small boat in a storm drown at sea. She saw a man reborn as consort to Goddess Death. She saw a man who found his daughter dying and brought her back to life. Then the glow went out of the golden orb, its magic spent, the enchantment gone. It remained a ball of simple, inert gold, the reflection on its surface, just a reflection of the room they sat in.
“I wish I had more to give you,” said the Poet to his daughter, “but please take it. Sell it and it may bring you food and a roof over your head.” He stood and turned to go, but the Poet's daughter clasped him on the shoulder.
“No,” she said firmly, “My needs are simple. This gold can serve for both of us.” Then the Poet and his daughter embraced, together again for the first time in twenty-nine years.
The next day they sold the golden ball and purchased a small cottage on the edge of town where they could live in peace. Time passed and with incredible speed of industry, the town grew up around them. The Poet and his daughter welcomed the students of the new university and the recently expanded factory nearby to share their table. The talk flowed freely as the wine and young men found themselves entranced by the thoughts of the beautiful daughter of the poet with the silver hand.
The Poet's daughter married one such visitor to their table, a fine young artist who drew pictures for the books she wrote. Then grandchildren came to the cottage and the Poet sang them silly verses and told stories about talking animals and strange lands of magic and make-believe. Most times he was happy, but sometimes, when certain breezes rippled the water over the river, he remembered the joy he felt in Death's arms and his soul ached with longing for her. He knew he would never take another earthly lover as he had in his first life. No mortal woman of flesh and blood could ever compare to her. It would be cruel to expect it.
But sometimes in his dreams, in what we call “the Little Death,” she came to him, in robes of white with a net of diamonds in her hair.
“These are the tears I cried for you,” she told him , by way of apology, “the bitter fruit of my mistakes.”
The Poet said nothing. What was there to say? His emotions surprised and angered him. It seemed impossible, but he still loved her, even after all that had occurred. She was a goddess after all, maker of man's greatest pleasure, the one who brought him back to life, the only one who had ever fully known him to his soul. How could he not love her?
As years of dreaming passed, Death saw her Poet growing older. All the ugly signs of age stamped their rude ways across his handsome features and his right hand remained a shriveled claw, his left, a scarred red stump beneath the silver. But still she came to him by night when her loins begged out to her for pleasure. Though she could have thousands of fit, young, handsome men, none would ever be right. None would ever be him. Nights she came to him, to hold him against her immaterial body of dream, Death saw the Poet glowed, a trace of the power Life had given him, still there within, obliterating all else from her mind. The one soul she'd saved among the billions. How could she not love him?
“Consume me,” he begged her at the climax of his passion. “Let us feel this way always!”
But Death knew if she did that, he would truly be gone, nothing more than a moment's quick sustenance for her body, instead of years of sweet dreamy pleasure, slow sustenance for her soul.
“It is inevitable,” Life told her sister Death as they stood together in Life's garden. They were on speaking terms again. Life wore a dress of scales that twinkled like an iridescent rainbow in the mid-afternoon light. Death wore her customary white, new pearl-encrusted shoes upon her feet, sparing Life's plants from her touch. “New life must come to replace the old in the end. It is unstoppable. The old must give way.”
“But not yet,” said Death sensibly and handed Life the net of tear shaped diamonds she wore upon her hair. Life smiled and spread the net out beneath her sea. Coral plants flocked to cling upon it, bacteria, worms and bright tropical fish springing into life as the coral that fed and housed them grew to fill the underwater regions of a new volcanic island's bay. Birds of many shapes and colours, and underwater mammals with strange, ungainly faces came now, to catch the schools of tasty fish.
“Not yet, of course,” nodded Life appreciatively. “Not yet.”
And somewhere, in a different space, upon a very different shore, just down the river from a cottage in what used to be the edge of town, a poet and his grandchild watch the sunrise, newborn verses rising in their minds.
I love my poet still, I say,
And we will join once more some day.