by Ben Godby
One day, a peasant, a warrior, a merchant and a priest appeared before the Angel of Death.
“Tell me about yourselves,” said the Angel.
“I was born in a village called Thim,” said the peasant. “In spring, the pastures ripen green, in summer the harvest is yellow, and in winter the earth is hidden with a veil of snow.”
“And in the autumn?”
She cast her eyes downward. “Aye, in the autumn. I have no good memories of that season.
“In the autumn of my seventeenth year I met my husband,” she continued, “and it was then that I lost my lover. His name was Ilto, and he and I had been betrothed from our infancy. We played in those pastures, fields and snowdrifts. We grew up to know each other by name.
“Then came my husband. He was a moment not of rage or passion, but uncertainty. He was not the red slashes of the leaves, though he was among them. We were, together, their falling; though I began to think that way only after. And he was the father of my first child.
“We had three more. Our first, my son, followed in the footsteps of his father, and grew into his old man’s profession. Our second, my daughter, had a child of her own and moved to live with her partner, though I am glad to say I saw her every holiday. Our third,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “passed away,” it crescendoed to normal, “and the fourth was a bad seed.”
“A bad seed?” the Angel asked.
“Rotten to the core,” she nearly whispered, shaking her head. “It made us feel awful – his father, especially.
“It was then that my husband took a lover. When I discovered, I said nothing but thought deeply. I never discovered whether his actions were on account of the child, or on account of me, or for the unfiltered sake of the other one that he found; but the more I thought on it, neither did I know for what reason I had taken my husband, so many years ago, when with Ilto. And then I took a lover of my own – a new one, as it was not Ilto, who had moved away and, for all purposes, disappeared. Though he was still strong in my mind, and I always tried to imagine it was him there with me; and perhaps that is why my second lover, like my husband, drifted away.”
There was a silence.
The peasant started. “Well, then I died.”
“I was born to the streets,” said the warrior. His gaze flicked to the peasant, ascertaining the completion of her testimony after the fact. Then his eyes settled on the Angel of Death with unimpressed familiarity. “To a mother, in truth, though not to a father. But still… still, the streets were my parents, good as any.
“I learned what was given, and what taken; what was done, and what could be redeemed. But I never learned the art of figuring, and thus my expectations were unequivocally proved wrong.
“When I turned eleven, they caught me. Either the streets had turned against me, or I had outgrown them, or else I had never been as intimate with them as I expected. They said I could join the army or have my hands chopped off, and I had some friends who’d been back from the wars already and had said it was a black business but gold coin. And imagine, until then, bread had been black business.
“There is little respect for our profession; and I admit I did some bad things – some things I’m not proud of. I have a wife and two daughters, for example, and I have not been home as often as a man should.”
He stared at the Angel, his eyes flinty, as though daring the being. Then he continued.
“But I’ve always supported them,” he said, “always loved them, and always fought for the same thing, which is peace.”
“The merchant has sent a letter,” said the Angel of Death.
The warrior blinked, not sure if he had had his fill of himself, or if he ought to say more; but it was too late for more words.
‘My name is X,’ read the letter, ‘and life is no longer worth living.
‘When I was still just a child my father died and his affairs fell to me. My mother had died long before that; so long that I sometimes doubted I was born. But I had advisers, who were certain I had been; and who were certain, too, that they could further grow me into a second father. I wondered if they could grow me into a second mother, too.
‘But when I was thirteen, I got rid of them. It was their own fault. They had shown me the lines and figures necessary to understand the businesses left to me, and there was a discrepancy in my own household. Their disappearance, I thought, could balance ledgers – profits for loss. And it was a necessary conclusion of the conditions predisposed.
‘But I was wrong. I was very wrong, or at least, I made the incorrect decision. And all of my father’s hard work fell apart.
‘How I ruined everything he’d created through one touch… I don’t know. There were checks; there should have been adjustments. The numbers, the formulas, they said so. Had said so. Or had, at least, suggested it.
‘I do not know what my former counsellors thought – if it amused them, or if they had planned it, or if my failures were a narrative unread by the collegial class of my city and province, utterly unremarkable. Instead, I grew older – not quite a father, and certainly not a mother – on a dwindling inheritance that, finally, obeyed a law: that of subtraction.
‘Then I met X. How could my life not immediately change? I think that when everyone meets their soul mate, they must sense that they are the one, and know that – though the unexpected might arrive – the foundation of all deviations from that point forward is solid.
‘We lay that foundation together. We were the keystone of familiarity against which rested the humble bricks of routine, the doorposts of beloved company, even the windows that let in the bother – the beloved bother! – of the world. Those Archimedean points, arbitrary in and of themselves, from which we could move the entire world and us within it.
‘It was many years we spent building that house. But now it has been two more, and these… these without. The gravel of the park path is unheard when scuffed by a single pair of feet, and the night breeze, without a body of warmth that lies against it, is tyrannical. Our house still stands, for it was built strong, but now it is a temple, and – if I am honest – I am fearful of entering it and prefer to tarry always elsewhere.
‘I have known it for so long, but I say now: I cannot live this way, alone. There are those who tell me there is so much yet to live for, and there are others who rush to fill the void. But what I now know best is that emptiness is not a negative quality; once it arrives, it cannot be filled up.
‘And so, goodbye.’
The Angel rolled the merchant’s letter and sealed it in a scrollcase.
“And you?” he said, at last.
The priest sighed – a great, long, windy thing. “I was born an orphan,” he began, “or, rather, that’s how I came into this life.
“Orphans suffer the greatest trials in life,” he continued – and for a moment looked as though he might sermonize on the story of the merchant. But he narrowed his eyes and, understanding time was short, stuck to his own. “But for me it was most fortunate. God, you see, took me in. Faith, you understand, brought me under its wing. That our lives are crass, profane, perverse, unfair, is the reason we have bases; and it is these bases that the fluid of wisdom rests upon as it fills up the vessel of the pious mind.
“But when the tapping upon these bases that is religion increases, and it rushes faster and froths to fill the clay, then these bases can be swept away – so that God’s mind runs like water through your own. When I learned this – and then learned how – I gave all of myself to God that I could. And, having forgotten all conceits, I was rewarded.
“Before me I saw the greatest vision ever beheld. It was golden thrones, and iron sceptres, and crowns of lights that shot into every aspect of reality. The thrones were great, the sceptres great, and the crowns presided over them as kings that were not kings, but only orders of metals, gems, and brilliance.”
The priest paused, his face glad, and his gaze passed over the shoulder of the Angel of Death and to a place beyond.
“I have held on to that vision all my life, Angel,” the priest said finally, “and now here I am at last.”
“Thank you,” said the the Angel of Death. Looking round, it considered the ghosts before it. “Now, tell me why I should admit you to the eternal hereafter, and not condemn you to the endless never.”
The ghosts, too, took their time to consider. Then, answering politely and without interrupting one another, they began. No one expected the first to answer would be the first to speak.
Said that one: “I have not asked life for anything, and I have not taken anything from life, either. When my heart has turned against something, my mind has fought for its salvation; and I have always done the best I could will towards anything and everything. Truly, I have walked through this world as easily as possible, both for myself, and for the rest of it. Spirits and hidden futures have no need to fear of me, for I will walk among them as a wisp of wind only mildly pleasant on the cheek.”
Then said another: “I do not expect God to take pity on me. God’s judgement will be final and swift. Life is a brief instant; I believe, now, that so too will be death.”
And said the third: “Well… I am alone. And I am not alone in my aloneness, but rather all beings and all creation share this heavy truth. But not being alone in aloneness is not enough; we wish to be together. We all long for a community, if not of the heart, at least of the spirit – a place where we are not alien to one another. Am I saying I have a right to this? Or that I expect my schematic to be in truth what stands beyond the rifts of time? No, of course not. But the world has been so much evil. Is it too much to ask that, once past it, we are given just some respite?”
One did not answer, and it was not the letter.
“Alright,” said the Angel at last. “I’m letting you all in. Provisionally.”