In life, I spoke one language, English. Now that I am dead, I speak all languages. Once you have acknowledged that everything you were every taught about life and death is a lie, then discovering that you can speak Sanskrit or converse with a Chinese scholar in Mandarin is no big deal.
However, the first time I looked at a papyrus of hieroglyphics and saw words, not pictures, I was surprised. "This is the Cliff Notes version, right?"
My tutor, a wizened Asian Indian stopped contemplating his navel long enough to inform me that the scrolls I was reading were three thousand years old. "They were buried with a pharaoh."
"One of Kuna's charges?" My mentor, Kuna was an Egyptian vampire who had served the rulers of his land in the afterlife. Being neither living nor dead, he could move freely between the two worlds, and so he accompanied the deceased on his journey into the Western Lands. When the last pharaoh died, almost two millennia ago, Kuna had been left without a job, so he became a Knight of Death and then, later, a Master of Death. Most recently, he had been given the task of training me to become a Knight.
I picked up another scroll and read the deceased pharaohs prayer's. Please don't let me forget my name. Please let Osiris judge my heart as pure. Please don't let my body putrefy. On and on. Most of it was dull, predictable stuff, but I stumbled upon one scroll that had me rolling with laughter.
My tutor opened one eye. "You have discovered something amusing?"
"Sure have. Can I borrow this?" At his nod of assent, I tucked the scroll in my belt. The bell sounded, signaling the end of my classroom studies. I left the library in search of Kuna.
I found him in the dueling arena, a large, dimly lit cavern whose walls were scored and chipped from countless battles. An assortment of weapons were scattered on the ground at his feet. He had thrown off his black robe, revealing the black armor which Knights of Death wore. Despite his short stature and slight build, I had yet to beat him in a contest of strength. Contests of wits were another matter.
All wide eyed innocence, I plucked the papyrus scroll from my belt. "Look what I found in the library? It's from a Book of the Dead. " I opened the scroll and began reading "'Spell for preventing a man from going upside down and from eating feces. What I doubly detest, I will not eat; what I detest is faeces, and I will not eat it....' . Reminds me of Dr. Suess. 'I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like it Sam I am.'"
If looks could kill and if I were not already dead, I would have died on the spot. Kuna used the toe of his boot to launch a battle axe in my direction. Arming himself with a slightly smaller weapon, a spiked mace, he growled "Defend yourself!"
"From what? You can't kill me." I ducked to avoid a vicious swipe at my head. "You can't even wound me." I barely evaded a blow that would have shattered a living man's shins. "All you can do is knock me down and then force me to listen to you rant about how worthless I am as a fighter." A feint to the left, a jab from the right and another swing at my legs toppled me to the ground. The impact of my skull hitting rock did not hurt, exactly, but it made my head spin and my eyes cross. Two Kuna's stood over me, glowering.
I was about to say something that Kuna was sure to make me regret, when Anubis entered the dueling arena. Kuna lowered his weapon and dropped to one knee, his head bowed. I scrambled up from the floor and adopted a similar posture.
"Rise," the jackal headed deity ordered. His voice resonated through the cavern. I felt that single word in my marrow. As if of their own volition, my legs straightened, and I stood before the god, head thrown back, hands at my sides, posture absolutely perfect. I had nothing but reverence for the one who had rescued me from the agonizing cycle of life, death and rebirth.
"I have a task for you." I felt the god's eyes upon me, and I shivered with a mixture of dread and anticipation. "There is a child who is lost in the world of the living. He should have passed over long ago, but his physical death has been delayed, and now he is in danger of becoming a ghost. I want the two of you to bring him home."
I was too tongue tied to speak, so Kuna asked the question we were both thinking. "Why us? Usually, Angels handle that kind of mission."
Angels of Death were souls which died at the moment of their birth. Having never known life, except in their mothers' wombs, they were sweet, gentle, fearless creatures, whose task was to look after the spirits which dwelled in the land of the dead. My twin Sister was one of them.
"I've sent two Angels. Both have failed. The second was your sister, Rusty. She recommended that I send you and Kuna." The jackal headed god spotted the papyrus on the ground. With a wave of his hand, he caused the scroll to rise in the air, where it hovered before him. "'Spell for preventing a man from going upside down and eating feces'" he read. "Interesting reading. You realize that the Book of the Dead is, in fact, the Book of the Living. It is a testament to the ancient Egyptians' fear of death. The living will go to extreme lengths to prevent the inevitable. They will bankrupt their families--or countries---murder other living creatures and endure lives of utter agony rather than face what's on the other side of the door."
The papyrus scroll fluttered to the floor. Before Anubis, there appeared a portal, one of the doors between the world between the worlds of the dead and the living which he and handful of other deities and sorcerers could manufacture at will. Unlike the ancient Egyptian ceremonial doors, which were carved from stone, this one was gossamer thin, woven from strands of light, decorated with constellations of stars, some of which had long since vanished from the night sky over earth and others which would not appear from many millions of years.
"Your sister is waiting for you on the other side," the jackal headed god told me. "She will tell you what you need to know."
Becka's mother-in-law was the one who called the ambulance. Becka returned home from the grocery store to find the paramedics strapping Jason to a stretcher. They had intubated him, and one of them was pumping air into his tiny chest with a small, football shaped balloon.
"He was choking," the old woman rasped, as the ambulance pulled away, taking the baby back to the Children's Hospital from which he had been discharged just two days earlier. "His face was blue. I couldn't stand to see my own grandchild suffer." The look she gave her daughter-in-law was accusing.
"He isn't suffering," Becka murmured. "The doctors say he can't feel anything. His brain is dead." She gathered her purse and car keys and headed towards the door.
The old woman grabbed the younger woman by the arm. Her red painted nails dug into smooth, pale flesh. "As long as his heart's beating, he's alive," Amantha hissed. "And as long as he's alive, my son isn't a murderer. Remember that. You can't do anything for Jason, but you can keep my son from dying."
Becka tore her arm free. "I know all that."
"Then why don't you take better care of Jason? Why don't you make them put him on one of those breathing machines and leave him there? He could live for a long time if he had a machine to breathe for him. Long enough for the DA to get tired of waiting for him to die. Once they charge Hank with child battery, they can't charge him later with murder. The lawyer says Hank can plead guilty and get out in seven years. If the baby dies, they will charge him with capital murder. Do you want to see Hank die?"
No, Becka did not want to see her husband die. Despite all that had happened, she still loved him. The love she felt for him made her feel sick, dirty. No mother should love a man who had done to her son what Hank did to Jason, her two month old son. But she couldn't stop feeling it. When she sat across the table from him in the visiting area of the jail, a thick pane of plexiglass between them, his wide, brown eyes made her feel weak inside and his voice made her heart thud against her breastbone as if it was trying to leap out of her chest.
It was all her fault. She knew Hank was not fit to be a father. She should never have had the baby---
Blinking away tears, she left her mother-in-law's house and headed towards her car. Like everything Becka owned, Amantha had paid for the car. If Hank's mother decided to kick her out, she would have nothing, no where to go, no place to sleep. However, as long as she had Jason to look after, Amantha would take care of her, for Hank's sake. For the living.
Becka was so preoccupied that she ran a red light and almost collided with a van. The sound of its horn, honking angrily echoed in her ears as she pulled into the visitor's parking lot of the Children's Hospital. The attendant recognized her and waved. Becka wondered if the man would be so friendly if he suspected that the real reason she took such good care of her infant son was because she was trying to keep her husband off death row.
The Intensive Care Unit nurses all knew her by name. "He's in bed seven," said Angie, the tall unit clerk with coffee colored skin and an American Indian profile. She wore small coral beads braided in her hair. "The nurses are starting an IV."
After having forty or fifty different IVs in the last month, Jason did not have any veins left. From experience, Becka knew that the nurses would end up calling in one of the anesthesiologists to place the line that would pump fluids and antibiotics directly into her son's heart. However, they always tried to find a vein in his puffy little hands and feet first. The bruises from their attempts a week ago were only just beginning to fade, and now he would have fresh bruises.
Tears poured down her cheeks. He never cried when they stuck needles in him. He didn't cry when he was hungry or wet, either. If left in a bassinet in the back of the nursery, he would quietly die without ever making a sound. The doctors told her that this meant that he was feeling no pain. She clung to their assurances. It didn't matter to Jason what was done to his tiny, little body. He was beyond help. She had to think of the living. She had to think of Hank.
Sister was waiting for us in the intensive care unit. Nurses were performing a painful looking procedure on a baby boy who lay as still and limp as a rag doll. His skin was mottled blue and white. White tape held a tube in place in is mouth. The other end of the tube was connected to a machine which pumped air into him. Wires attached to his chest, arms and legs were hooked to a heart monitor which showed a red line punctuated by small, regular peaks. To a living observer, he would have appeared to be alive, though in critical condition. To a resident of the Land of the Dead, it was clear that the child had long ago giving up its struggle to live, and the only thing keeping him in this world were the tubes, lines and wires.
The two nurses in powder blue scrubs could not see or hear us, though Kuna, having a physical manifestation in their world, could have made himself known had he chosen to do so. While the women worked, Sister filled us in on the details.
"The baby wants to leave this world. He has tried time and again. But they keep holding him back."
Kuna observed the infant dispassionately. He had seen a lot of suffering in the last four millennia, and it took more than a battered, brain dead child to move his ice cold heart. "Give the mother time. Once her grief eases, she will accept the inevitable."
Someone less sweet natured might have objected to be being told how to do her job. Sister merely murmured "She is not grieving for the child. She is thinking of her husband. As long as the child is alive, her husband won't be condemned to die."
Anger flared within me. "She's willing to sacrifice her child's happiness for the life of its murderer? How could she?"
Sister laid a cool, restraining hand on my wrist. My anger evaporated. "She does not realizes that there is anything beyond this." She waved her free hand at the hospital room. "To her, the baby is dead and the father is alive. The living will do anything to preserve life."
"You've entered her mind?" Kuna asked. "You've showed her the joy her child will feel when he is finally allowed to cross over?"
"Yes. I've showed her. But it will take more than that to convince this one. That's why I suggested that they send Knights. Someone needs to show her the horror her child is enduring, trapped as he is between the worlds."
Horror. Fear. These were the weapons of Knights of Death, who understood the terrible pain of life, because we had once been alive. Angels, like Sister, could never understand what the living endured or how hard it was to be trapped in one world when you belonged in the other.
"Where is the mother?" Kuna asked. His expression was one of grim resolve.
"Let me," I said, surprising myself almost as much as I startled my trainer. "I want to try."
I expected Kuna to tell me that I was too young and inexperienced for this kind of work, however, after exchanging glances with Sister, he agreed.
The mother was in the waiting room. She was younger than I expected, barely out of adolescence, a tall, big boned woman with lank brown hair with blonde tips from an old dye job. Her cheeks still had a trace of baby fat. Her eyes were red and puffy from crying. She sat apart from the other visitors, in a rocking chair under the window, her arms folded across her chest, her legs crossed.
Fortifying myself, I marched across the room. My feet sank several inches below the carpeted floor. Rather than walking around the furniture, I passed through tables and chairs. If the young mother could have seen me, she would have noticed that I was blurred around the edges, with empty patches here and there where I had failed to recreate the illusion of my living form. However, I was not skillful enough yet to create a visual manifestation .
I paused a few inches in front of her. The stench of her living flesh made me feel sick, but I forced myself to move even closer, until we occupied the same space. She shivered at the sudden chill and wrapped her arms more tightly around herself.
"Who's there?" she whispered aloud.
Weeks in a hospital, caring for an infant on the verge of dying must have made her sensitive to the world of Death. Her unusual perceptiveness would make my job easier.
I am Death , I answered her.
"Why...why are you here?"
A middle aged couple sitting nearby looked at her curiously, but she ignored them. Her attention was fixed on me. I created an image within her mind of a tall figure with short, red hair and a pale, stern face above black armor.
I have come for what is mine. It is time for your child to be
born into my world.
The longer he stays here, the more he suffers. He is so alone.
him is darkness and silence. Can you imagine what it must be like to
be a baby who
has always know its mother's heart beat and then suddenly, he find
himself utterly alone?
He would scream if he had a voice with which to scream. He wants desperately
wake up from this nightmare, but he can not, because ropes and chains
bind him, forcing
him to endure a long, dark night which may never end. Is that what
you want? Do you
want him to become a ghost? A haunting that will prowl the earth,
something it can never have? Shunned, feared, locked out in the
cold so that
the one took his young life can live? What kind of life demands
She resisted. "Hank," she said aloud. "What about Hank?"
There's room for Hank there, too.
A few days later, the machines were disconnected, the child was allowed to pass on, and we returned to the Land of the Dead, Jason's spirit cradled in Sister's arms. Kuna and I followed behind her. I felt jumpy and irritable, as I always did after contact with the living, and when Kuna started to speak, I braced myself for another argument.
"Do you remember the first time we met?"
How could I forget? It was my first mission. They had sent me to bring Kuna to the Land of the Dead. No one told me that my quarry was a Master of Death and that Anubis has designated him to be my teacher.
"You frightened me," Kuna said.
"For the first time in a very long time you made me regret the decision I made to become one of the un-dead."
I had never known Kuna talk so much about himself. I held my tongue, waiting to see if more revelations would follow.
"When my last pharaoh decided to be reborn into the world of the living, I realized that my life no longer had meaning. For one blessed---or cursed---with eternal life, that can be quite a blow. Had there been some way for me to end my life, I would have done so, even though it would have meant failing in my final responsibility, which is to keep the memory of my pharaohs alive." He gave me a sidelong glance. "I became a teacher to pass the time. Most of my students have been thick headed, clumsy oafs who couldn't scare a legless ant into giving up its ghost. However, teaching gave my life purpose."
"Until you met me. Am I really such a disappointment? If you tell Anubis that you find me so disagreeable that you would rather die and be reborn than teach me, I am sure he will choose someone else to be my mentor." It was meant as a joke, but I could not completely hide my hurt feelings. That's one of the curses of being a Knight of Death. You feel emotions like anger, pride, betrayal.
Kuna stopped in his tracks and turned to me. "Who said anything about disappointment? I was envious. You are destined for great things."
If his goal was to render me speechless, he succeeded. All the way back to the citadel, I was silent, mulling over his words.
McCamy is a long time contributor to Aphelion as well as Assistant Short Story Editor. You can find out all about her and herwork by following the link below to her new and improved (Post) Millennium Fiction website.
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