Death’s Goddaughter, by Deanna Baran
There is no barrier between Here and There, as long as you have eyes to see.
When the Angel of Death stands at their feet, I can bring them back with just a drop of magic cordial. When the Angel of Death stands by their head, I can only serve as a midwife of sorts and provide comfort as their soul slowly labors to free itself from the body.
The Angel of Death is my godfather.
There’s not just one Angel of Death, of course. Animals are visited by the Angel Mashbir, and livestock by Ḥemah. Mashḥit helps children cross over; it’s a pleasure to watch her work, she’s always so warm and motherly. It helps me feel better when in the presence of their real mothers’ despair. Death levels the great and the humble alike, but kings have their own Angel of Death. Gabriel always has such gravity and dignity. I feel like I’m an intruder when I have the rare opportunity to watch him work. Ḳapẓiel is in charge of those who are too old to be children, but haven’t quite reached the maturity of adulthood. He shines so brightly, I’ve never seen anyone reluctant to follow him through the Door.
But the Angel Af is my godfather. The one who takes everybody else.
My father was fond of telling me the story. He needed to find a godfather for me. As I’m the youngest of a very large family in a very small village, all his friends had already committed to serving my other siblings as godparents. He met an angel, who offered to serve as godfather, but my father didn’t like the idea. “I want my girl to be successful in life,” he said. “I don’t want her to have to wait for heaven for her reward.” A demon heard this, and offered to be my godfather, offering him plenty of gold up-front. But my father didn’t like that idea, either. “No scoundrel like you will have such access to my daughter’s soul.” And then he came upon Death. Death was impartial. Death didn’t discriminate. He liked that. The Angel Af became my godfather the very next Sunday, and ever since then, I’ve had the Eyes to See Things Most People Can’t.
Getting to see both sides of so many deaths has been very educational. Who wants their first experience of death to be their own? I’ve seen really good deaths, so beautiful that I cried. Sometimes long-dead relatives are given permission to come through the Door as a welcoming escort, and it’s the most heartwarming family reunion you’ve ever seen. Other times, for those destined for the Choir, you hear the most amazing harmonies wafting through the Door. The soul instinctively knows the part it’s supposed to sing, for all Eternity, and it practically runs ahead of Death in its eagerness to get into position and join in. Money, power, property–you can’t take anything with you, except for your good deeds, and sometimes those materialize as flowers, with such a beautiful scent that everyone in the room can smell them, even if they don’t have gifts like mine.
I’ve seen really bad deaths, too. I cried then, too, in a different way. You don’t need Eyes to understand. If you’ve been there, you know what I mean.
But I spend most of my time helping people back from the brink of death. If it’s not someone’s time, Death stands at their feet and I have permission to administer the magic cordial that he once gifted to me. If their time is up, Death stands at their head, and I have to respect that, no matter how much pity I may feel for them. Af–or Mashḥit, or Ḳapẓiel, or Gabriel, or whoever is on duty for that particular case–doesn’t make the calls. He reports to a Higher Power. It’s not a good idea to interfere with the commands of those to whom even Death is but a servant.
I was traveling along the shores of the Adriatic and we had stopped in a small trading republic for provisions. Word of my presence had spread, and I had been summoned to the Rector’s palace. His grandson was very ill, and it was not certain he would survive the night.
When I arrived in the sick-chamber, his father, grandfather, and their attendants surrounded him. The boy’s body was ash-skinned and weak, but his soul sat upright, a vibrant glow of living light. Mashḥit sat on the bed at his feet, and together they sang a beautiful harmony. She smiled at me and vanished, alone, through the glowing Door nearby. The grandson’s soul cried. I ignored that. It wasn’t his time yet. A drop of magic cordial to his cracked lips brought a healthy flush to his cheeks, and with a sigh, his soul settled back into his body like a child settling down for a good nap.
The child’s father couldn’t restrain himself. He gave me a rib-cracking hug of joy. “Will the child live?”
“The child will live,” I squeaked, freeing myself.
“Name your price,” said the Rector. “Gold, jewels, land, anything. Nothing is as precious as that which you’ve saved.”
“Nonsense,” I said. “It wasn’t his time yet. I am happy to have served. If you wish to thank me, perform some act of kindness against the day of your own death.”
The child’s father seized my hands. “You must stay with us. We are not grand, like Regusa or Venice or the Ottoman Empire, but you must stay with us and help our people.”
I freed my hands. “Should I not serve the people of Regusa and Venice and the Ottoman Empire just as much as I serve you?” I asked. “Don’t be selfish. Death will return. It never allows itself to be stopped permanently.”
They were fine words, but his offer made my heart ache. I was tired of being an itinerant miracle-worker. I wanted to settle down, have a family, be comfortable. Not burn in the heat of summer, freeze in the spray of the winter sea, sleep under the stars with a rock for a pillow. I loved the fulfillment of helping people, but tired of the Spartan lifestyle that accompanied it.
“The child’s mother died two summers ago,” said the Rector’s son, looking at me steadily. “I offer you myself. You could live in the palace. Share our family. Everything you want–gold, jewels, beautiful clothes, horses and carriages–everything would be yours.”
“When Death comes for me, I’ll have no need of horses and carriages to follow him,” I told him sternly. “And Death won’t care what I wear. It’s all the same.” It wasn’t the first time I’ve had such an offer. But why was this time different? Why did I feel like actually considering his proposition?
“Traders come through here from everywhere. You could reach the whole world without moving a step.”
“As though the ill of the world are found on ships, and not on their sickbeds,” I said. “I don’t want pilgrims flocking to me for their cures. After all, I can’t guarantee results. I’m nothing special. But… I wouldn’t say no to staying for dinner. Just for tonight.”
He smiled at me.
The Angel Af did not smile at me when he visited me in my room a month later. Somehow I never got around to leaving, and felt guilty that Af had caught me in my weakness.
“Godfather!” I exclaimed. “Don’t tell me it’s time already. That would be rather inconvenient for my hosts.”
“Goddaughter. I speak as one who loves you. Do not marry Dzivo.”
You can’t lie to angels. Spirits don’t speak with words; they speak heart-to-heart. Rather than protesting that I’d never considered such a thing, I asked instead, “Why not?”
“He would not bring you happiness. He is a drunkard. He’s infamous for his scandals. Avoid him.”
“Surrounded by palace courtiers and palace intrigue, I’m not surprised,” I said. “Don’t you think I could bring some fresh air into this place? Bring some good to their souls…?”
Af wrapped his wings around me. I was plunged into darkness darker than any night. He released me a moment later. I found myself in a cavern of immense size. Countless candles floated in innumerable tiers, but somehow my eyes were not dazzled by the brilliant light. He reached out a hand, and two candles detached themselves from the ranks and floated towards him. One candle was a tall, elegant taper. The other was quite stubby in comparison.
Af did not have to tell me that the tall candle represented my remaining life, and the stubby candle represented the time on earth that Dzivo had left. I somehow knew it innately.
“There will be an earthquake,” said Af. “The palace will be ruined. The city will collapse. The port will be forgotten. Countless lives will be lost. Do not be among them.”
The fact that a whole city was to be destroyed didn’t shock me nearly as much as the thought of all those unprovided-for deaths. “Let me help them,” I begged him. “If it’s just for a short time, then please.”
Af didn’t respond. He didn’t need to. He had advised me. I had my free will. I was back in my room, just as I had left it, and I married Dzivo three months later.
I don’t know what I expected. There was no magic cordial to “fix” his drunkenness or selfishness. I warned everyone of the earthquake and was told earthquakes did not happen in this region. I said we must prepare–we must not be caught unawares–we must strengthen our buildings. We could establish farms on the outskirts, away from the shore. We could stockpile food and building materials, maybe even shift the population center inland. They metaphorically patted me on the head, and told me not to be so gloomy when business was so good. I heard the Rector ask Dzivo in passing one day what had gotten into his head to marry such an eccentric, and it was obvious it was not the first time the question had been asked. I bit my lip to hear Dzivo’s answer, but he only laughed and said at least little Marin loved me.
I couldn’t lose myself in my work anymore. I was isolated in the palace. I tried creating an outpost for myself by the wharf, although I now feared the sea. But it wasn’t appropriate for the future Rector’s wife to mingle unsupervised with the commoners. My plans came to naught. My bottle of magic cordial gathered dust and I was like a bird trapped in a cage.
I tried singing to little Marin the song that Mashḥit had once sung, although singing angelic songs in a human voice is a poor imitation. But he had forgotten the encounter and would run off to play in the garden.
Time and again, I was determined to flee, but hadn’t the courage to abandon the people I had defied my godfather’s will to save. My Eyes were useless.
Dzivo and I had a daughter. With my Eyes, I could see my place in history, a tiny cog in a great complicated machine that I could never comprehend. All the mothers who came before me, the mothers who would come after me, how existence and being flowed through us. For a few brief moments, I could feel Love, tangible, overpowering, like an ocean, and it was the same sort of Love I had sensed on the other side of the Door.
We named her Lujza.
I knew who to ask to stand as godfather.
When the earthquake came, it was not a surprise. I saw five of the Angels of Death–minus Gabriel–advancing on the city. I kissed Marin and Lujza and took them to the safest high place I could find.
But Af and Mashḥit found us. Mashḥit took Marin through the Door, and he followed her eagerly. I clutched Lujza in my arms, waiting for Mashḥit’s return, but Af held out his hand to me.
“It is not her time,” said Af. “But it is yours.”
“But I thought my candle was so tall…!” I said, kissing Lujza once more. Once more. Once more. Lujza was too busy trying to grab at Af’s beautiful wings and squirmed away from my kisses.
Af smiled. “Most of your candle was added to Lujza’s. You did not get a chance to finish all the work intended for you. You’ve caused quite a bit of trouble for your daughter.”
“I’m sorry. I should have listened.”
“Everything is taken into account,” said Af. “Come with me, and let us see the results of your work.”
I kissed Lujza one more time (twice more), and followed Af through the Door.
Deanna Baran lives in Texas and is a librarian and former museum curator who had the honor of sitting with her grandmother as she passed, and was amazed at how similar it was to childbirth. She writes in between cups of tea, playing Go, and trading postcards with people around the world. Read more of her work in the 2015 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide by Dreaming Robot Press. http://dreamingrobotpress.com/
Posted on May 6, 2015, in Contest, Issue 16: Shinigami Stories—Reaping the Harvest of Souls and tagged contest, death, death reaper, e-zine, grim reaper, horror, shinigami, short stories, The Were-Traveler. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.