A Walk by the River
by Clarissa Wilson
Format: Short Story | Genre: Fantasy
I come for everyone alike, although they imagine me quite differently. Most think of me as brutal: I am, to their minds, a dark spectre sent to punish them. I come heralded by a knock on the door or the ringing of bells, tolling and knocking as a personal affront to them. Others imagine me as a saviour come to release them from their suffering – an angel, sent to free them. Others see a mask, devoid of all that creates sympathy and emotion; they see a creature for whom empathy is a foreign concept or, worse still, a sin. Then there are those who think of me but imagine instead the dead themselves – entertaining visions of revenants rising from their graves ready to drag the living down with them.
I am Death, but I am none of those things. The concepts humans create for me are wrong – more than wrong, they are brutal, for thinking of me like this only makes things harder for them when the time comes. There is nothing they can do to stop my coming. In truth, there is very little reason to be frightened of it. When their time comes, I will find them, I will know them, and then – despite all their prayers and machinations – they will be gone.
There are people who will tell me that their time has not yet come. They feel honest, helpless indignation at the moment of their passing. They tell me they have things to do, people to love, lives to live, families to protect or create – plans for the world that will only come to pass if they remain in it. I wish I could pay attention to these things and judge accordingly – but judgement is not mine to give. I am inevitable and limited, and it is a rare day when I can decide which gives me more grief.
I drift on the wind, aimless for now, and somewhere there is a river. It is a river I have seen so many times before, and in a way, it is akin to myself, or at least I have marked it so. Romantic notions float at the bottom of the river like the thickest and most miserable silt, full of lost loves and overwhelming emotions that can drive a person to seek my arms and further my employment. Not all who do so come to me; not immediately. Instead, they find the arms of another, pulling them out of the river and back into the world I will never experience but have always known.
Others succeed. There is a part of me that views their deaths as unnecessary, foolish things. Forcing the inevitable to come faster is, at best, an exercise in futility. Would that I could stay that judgement – but their memories and spirits are with me, giving me everything I need to understand them. Unnecessary though it seems to me, I have no choice but to sympathise with their desire to hurry.
As much as any force could be my friend, the river is one. We have worked together for years upon years, feeling and being filled by the same things, and the souls at the bottom of us both have engendered a kind of understanding between us. Today, however, my job does not lie on the river’s banks or depths. It is only a river, and I move past it.
I wander away from the river, to the outskirts of a town I have known before and will now know again. The wind brings dry red leaves, hollow reeds, and the dust of a too-long summer. Debris swirls across roads, yards and roofs, and is caught in bare bushes and nearly bare trees. The dust has less lofty goals – it mostly just collects in cracks in the asphalt, settling only to fly and drift back to coat the roads more completely with every breath of wind. The farther I go from the river, the less pretext there is of the roads being made of any material other than dust – perhaps it was meant to be gravel, some time ago. The roads age slowly, as if they were lines on some great chart measuring time with distance – changing from the hard, modern materials of blacktop and concrete into the more time-honoured slowness of dirt and stone. The house I find myself drawn to has never pretended to need pavement. I suspect it has not pretended many things.
On that straightforward and honest driveway, I find a truck, newly returned but oddly familiar to its surroundings. Though the driveway is otherwise empty, the truck seems to fit as if it were slotting into its place in the universe, as if there were a car-shaped void I had been unaware of. The truck is of one mind with the man who crawls out of it, into the sunlight, just as it is with the old, steady house the man calls home. All three of these have borne sunlight – often and in regular doses that last almost as long as the day itself. The man, alone out of the three, wears a hat. This hat is old and ragged now, but it has done its job well. Nearly sun-bleached at the top, the hat has kept its owner from bearing the full heat of the sun for years on end. The owner’s back is bent with labour that stretches back many years and projects, into a personal eternity of work under the sun. He props himself up now by a cane, one likely used by his forefathers and all that came before him. His garage door screeches open with the push of a button, calling for oil or quite possibly wholesale replacement. The man mutters under his breath about needing to get that fixed, and I am curious – will anyone bother to do it once he is gone? The man sighs, and I wonder if he is thinking the same thing. His garage seems full of a lifetime of memories, organised as if he expects someone to go through them after he is gone. Maybe someone will. I doubt anyone could visit this museum of life with as much care as he has shown.
The man goes inside the house and I follow him, growing closer every second. I see a house full of old things kept organised and new things kept at bay. There is a vase on the counter that has not been used in a long time. The frame of what had been a doghouse sits in the far corner of the yard, now full of holes and as unkempt as the flowerbeds beside it. The man looks at the yard in much the same way as I had at the vase. I have never known if there is anything after my work is done, for I cannot leave my post and there is no one who could come back and tell me. Not for the first time I wonder what sort of a place that would be. I hope it is a place where this man can find someone to fill the vase on his countertop and the doghouse in his yard. I hope there is a house waiting for him, with a garden full of bright, green things and a garage waiting to be filled.
In this world, so far away from my hopes for him, the man sits in his worn and favoured chair. This chair was once the plush and comfortable seat of a young man who sought comfort after a job well done. Now it is the threadbare throne of a man whose time has come. I sink into his spirit until there is no more of him and barely any of me, and I know what I had before only suspected.
This man has lived in this house for most of his life, and for the last decade he has lived here alone. He has suffered through droughts and wars and times of starvation, and he has rejoiced through rain and peace and times of plenty. I know now the names of all the people we both hope he will see. I know the names of the people we both know will survive him. I know the man in his entirety, and we are one – and then he is pulled away from me. I feel a part of him lingering, becoming a part of me just like everyone does, but the man himself disappears – gone farther than I ever could. For a brief moment, I allow myself to mourn him, but he is gone and could not know what I did in his memory or appreciate my sentiments. He is gone, to a place I will never know, and I am alone again.
I feel the wind calling me now, dragging me to my next destination, and I walk along the riverbank again.