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Life is full of surprises. Here today, gone tomorrow – one moment you’re stepping in front of a magic trident meant for someone else, the next you’re lying passed out waiting for the tide to wash you away … At least, that’s how I found myself when I woke up, darkness drawing in and the sea lapping at my toes – and only then did I realise: someone had stolen my shoes. D’y’ever have one of those days? At least I had my positive attitude, there was that. And pins and needles – aaagh!
Manfully, I staggered on up the beach by the light of the setting sun, looking disconsolately down at my bare footprints in the sand and shivering to blazes with the cold sea winds chafing at my still-damp clothes. Everything hurt, my head, my heart – here I was with nothing – no life, anything, feeling like it was never going to work out for me. I was concussed, half-drowned, half-dead, bone-weary, ensorcelled, and up the creek without a paddle. But I still had my positive attitude! I had a curse to beat (my hand was still throbbing from that spindle cut), a band of vengeful sirens to avoid, a snake-tongued sorceress not to be killed by, and a growing list of to-dos that made it look like each passing moment I kept walking around was a minor miracle. (“Ya see, son, that’s that positive attitude right there! You’re not listenin’, son, I say, you’re not listenin’. Nice kid, but a little stuck in his ways, you know what I’m sayin’?”)
Okay, start with the possible: Finding the missing mermaid – about so tall, golden-green blonde hair, answers to the name of Nessa – and, oh, yes, she’s got the nicest smile I have ever seen in my life. Right, glad we’ve got that straight. Now I just had an island to search and hope she was even still here. I was fairly sure she hadn’t gone with her former friends (the aforementioned vengeful sirens, led by a redhead named Lyra, who hated my guts and would cheerfully have them for garters given half the chance). So what did that leave?
I’d noticed that Lyra had scooped up a trident that I’d presumed had belonged to Nessa, before shimmering back into the sea in mermaid form and swimming off. Were those tridents important somehow? I vaguely recalled something about how some mermaids needed magical artefacts to assume the traditional fish-tail-and-clamshell-bikini form hallowed by history. Did that mean Nessa was as stuck on this island as I was? Of course, at that moment, as if on cue, I heard a plaintive scream – as of, “Help! I’m being attacked by monsters! Help! (Did I mention the monsters?)”. Without thinking, I was dimly aware of some foolhardy soul running towards the sound of the screaming. Someone needed my help.
Running barefoot on a strange island in the dark is apparently a good way to break a leg — I made it somehow, though. Over sand, over rocks, past wind-twisted trees, until I came to a sort of natural rocky hollow, walled in on all sides by sheer cliffs. Some over-active part of my back brain chose this moment to cut in with a little overthinking: Just how well did I really know this girl, anyway? In fact, we hadn’t really even been formally introduced. So why was I rushing to risk my life for her? How did I know this wasn’t all some elaborate trap set up by my old friend the snake-lady. Or just the sirens’ way of amusing themselves? Get some poor sap to fall for a girl with a nice smile, lure him in, and then, “Bingo-bango, that’s good barbecue!” …
… Sometimes I think my brain doesn’t like me very much …
… Anyway, I skidded through into the hollow, juddering to a halt on one foot like a cartoon rabbit, and – well, I found the source of the screaming. I stopped, and looked on in quiet awe.
On all sides, bearded and moustachioed pirates (I assume they were pirates, they had the look) were running around in circles, trying desperately to get away. Several lay writhing on the ground, keening in agony, or else feigning unconsciousness. I had to brace myself not to be knocked over by the rush as they fled, pushing past me to the narrow opening in the cliff walls, dragging fallen comrades as they went.
‘Arr! This be no fair! I grews the beard fer the ladies, and the ladies show me no appreciation!’
‘And these shoes don’t fit at all!’ complained another, whose footwear seemed vaguely familiar somehow.
The only way was forward. Unfortunately, that turned out not to be so good for my health:
‘Hiiieeee-yaa!’ A flying kick took me out at about chest height. Ooof!
‘Hiya, yourself,’ I tried to croak from somewhere on the ground, but for some reason all the wind seemed to have gone right out of me. That, and there was an arm across my throat, a knee on my chest, and a tree-branch club raised over my head to make me go night-night if I showed any signs of giving trouble.
‘You too? You want some – huh, pal?’
I lightheadedly noticed the glimmer of golden-green hair in the bad light. Time seemed to go funny. I couldn’t seem to say anything … In my weakened half-dead condition, I figured I had about three seconds before I was heading for a big light at the end of a long tunnel. ‘N—’ Nessa, I tried to say. Couldn’t breathe. Getting lightheaded. No oxygen left in lun— …
‘No? Then why did you— Oh, it’s y …’
I felt the pressure ease, but my chest had gone numb. A trickle of air seemed to be trying to get past my windpipe but not having much luck. What a way to go …
Death wasn’t what I expected. Or rather, that is to say, Death wasn’t quite who I expected. Let me explain: In most worlds, real or skewed into a bad corner of imagination and misbegotten fairy tale, Death – the Grim Reaper, the Final Curtain, the Big Enchilada— … I’m not explaining very well, am I?
Well, let’s just say I’ve encountered the idea that in some worlds, Death has become someone who, although unwavering, has begun to feel and care for those he ushers into the next world. “He” being the operative word, if you see what I’m saying— Gawrsh, this is kind of embarrassing … He was a she: Death was a lady. And … well, I overthink enough for that to not be entirely unexpected, I just never considered that …
‘Hello …’ said a voice that made my heart go pitter-pat. The voice belonged to a young woman in a long hooded cloak, white shirt, slacks that could have been cut out of the midnight sky, and long folded-top boots that trod the immortal measure through time and space.
‘Hey, mister,’ she said gently, although there was a smile in her voice when she said it, ‘I’m up here.’ I looked up – dreading what I might see – to find a girl, about my age, shaking her hair out. Her long, glossy, red hair. What is it with me and redheads – and why are they always trying to kill me? Don’t answer that.
‘Oh, I’m not trying to kill you,’ she said.
‘Can you read minds?’ I blurted out.
‘I recognise the look.’ She seemed … amused, and also, keen to put me at my ease. ‘Relax,’ she said. ‘Sit down. Take the weight off. Have a cup of tea.’
I stared, slack-jawed. Look, don’t look at me like that. I’m human – and it’s kind of a confusing situation and—
‘Wait – you said not trying to kill me … Does that mean I’m not dead?’ Something in my head was fighting for attention. ‘Did you say tea?’ (What can I say? I’m not made of stone — I couldn’t remember the last time I had a cup of tea.) I finally paused enough to look around me a little.
I was in a garden – there was a scythe leaning up against one wall (’ulp) – and it was almost literally filled with flowers. Roses overflowed their borders with sheer vibrant colour and life. Sea-lavender waved gently in the breeze. Jewel-coloured everlasting-flowers glowed in the twilight … Welcome to the Land of the Setting Sun, I thought. Or was that sun rising? There was a table on a gravel path, set for tea. I looked back at Death – wait, this was ridiculous. ‘Um, excuse me, Miss,’ (you bet I capitalised it – pretty redhead or not, Death is Death, and it never hurts to be polite). ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but do you have a name?’
Death paused for a moment. Hesitated, actually, I’d say if I didn’t know any better. As if she wasn’t really expecting the question. ‘A name?’ she said eventually. ‘I’d have thought you knew who I was already.’
‘No, but I mean—‘
She said quickly, ‘Aren’t you keen to know if you’re still alive?’
Well, that got my attention.
‘In answer to your first question,’ she reached out, feeling the air, staring into the distance as if watching some far-off scene—
—for a moment I was looking at a vague figure on the ground, a flash of spun green-gold floating in the air above him, and something else like a glow of light …—
‘—Hey!’ she said. ‘No peeking!’ Before it had a chance to resolve itself into anything more definite, the scene vanished. I found Death looking at me with her head turned on one side for a moment, before resuming, ‘Reasonable chance – could go either way. Ask again later.’ She caught my expression. ‘But probably – this time, anyway … Now, will you pour, or shall I?’
On the wrought-iron table, was a steaming teapot and two of the daintiest little cups and saucers I’d ever seen, inlaid with patterns of roses and … I peered closer … scenes from my recent adventures. Okay, that wasn’t weird at all. Not even a little bit.
It reminded me of those old Greek amphorae they used to dig up: There was one of me being dangled over the parapet by the snake queen, only the artist had stylised it so that she looked a bit more like Medusa. Then there was one of me stepping in front of Lyra’s trident (which had gone all glowy at the end — I didn’t remember that …)— I looked away. I probably didn’t want to see the rest. ‘What are these?’
‘Scenes from your life. I must say, you do cram it in, don’t you? Would you do the honours?’ She gestured to the teapot.
‘Eh? Oh.’ I picked up the teapot — and nearly put my back out. It was indescribably heavy. ‘What’s in this thing!’
‘I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,’ said Death, her voice carefully blank. Then, she winked at me.
I sighed. What did I have to lose? I poured the tea. ‘Milk and sugar?’ I asked, lowering the world’s heaviest teapot, carefully, back onto the table. How did it take the weight?
‘Please.’ Death smiled at me again. She had a very distracting smile. (It seemed quite unfair that anyone should manage the lipsticked equivalent of a Cheshire Cat grin fading through the air while she was still there, and whilst also looking amused – probably at my expense – and curious and bright-eyed and generally confusing the heck out of me.)
‘Say when,’ I said. Figures, first time in I didn’t know how long that I get to sit down and spend time with a girl my age, and she was Death. My life … which, now I came to think of it, probably still hung in the balance.
Apparently, Death liked her tea strong, sweet, and with plenty of milk – except, I was fairly sure, it was no ordinary tea – and I had my suspicions about the milk and sugar, too. For one thing, the milk seemed to shimmer and echo with reflections of music and laughter and something I couldn’t quite define. The sugar, now the sugar almost glowed in the light, smelling of meadow-sweet flowers and honey and … ‘Thank you,’ the redheaded Death said, taking the cup and saucer from me. There was a faint musical ting-ing sound that echoed into the air around me as she stirred it with her spoon. I added milk and sugar to my own cup and sat down.
I looked at her, one moment sniffing a rose contentedly, the next twining the handle of her teaspoon through a lock of hair. She caught me looking and sort of smiled back uncertainly. And in that moment I couldn’t help but realise something. Death – the End, the Last Call, the Great Goodnight – was as lonely as I was. It’s kind of hard to be afraid or intimidated by someone when you catch a glimpse of the human being underneath.
‘I haven’t poisoned that tea you know,’ said a voice after a few minutes. I looked down, and saw I had my teacup raised to my lips. The girl in front of me (it was hard to think of her as just Death anymore) raised her own cup and took a sip, leaning back with a contented sigh. ‘Just right,’ she said. ‘You make a good cup of tea.’
‘Thank you,’ I trailed off. ‘Can I ask you a question?’
‘You’re wondering if time is passing where you left your body. The answer is … complicated. I can stretch time a little while longer, but when you get back, you won’t have been gone long. Does that answer your question?’
I nodded slowly, suddenly not sure I’d even had a question.
‘Well, aren’t you going to drink your tea then?’
If this was some kind of cosmic ambush meant to trap my soul in limbo or something, it seemed a funny way of going about it. I took a sip — and was immediately transported. I won’t say I was in heaven, but I was suddenly a long way from hell: It was like all my aches and pains, all the heartaches, all the suffering down through the years in this fairy-tale-gone-wrong nightmare had just melted away … They were still there – but it was like I wasn’t feeling them for a time. It wasn’t genuine rest, but it was the closest thing I was likely to get for now.
The rest of the time seemed to pass in kind of a blur. Or at least, I couldn’t seem to remember much afterwards. What was in that tea? All I remember was fading away as a nice young lady thanked me for a lovely time and wished me good luck in my future endeavours. And, of course, she’d take a keen interest in my progress. Wait— What? … Pretty soon, I didn’t remember even that …
‘… wake up. Breathe, damn you!’
Someone was hammering on my chest, which felt wet. My throat felt warm, as if someone had been trying to knead some life back into it. In front of me, was a golden blur, that resolved itself into a face.
For a moment, something flashed through me, as if I wasn’t quite looking at things in this world. I raised a transparent hand, reaching out. Wait, did something seem out order here – like time had criss-crossed over or something? Kneeling over me was … something else. Like someone reaching out in soul form to touch my heart, tears streaming down her face, glowing inside with something bright and—
—and then my vision returned to normal. Looking down at me was Nessa the mermaid, her eyes brimming with tears again. I breathed a little. She looked about ready to cry. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t have the breath to say anything just then, but, just at that moment, I had never seen anything, or anyone, more beautiful in my life. ‘Hi …’ I said.
‘Thank God,’ Nessa choked out. She pulled me up by the collar and looked down into my eyes, tears trickling down her cheeks. And then, she slapped me. Hard. Owww … I tell you what, mermaids have a heck of an arm – my skull was ringing. You could probably hear the echoes in Greenland …
‘Don’t ever do that again!’ she said, her voice filled with fury. ‘Don’t you ever, ever do that to anyone ever again …’ But there was warmth in it. I relaxed. It was okay. Just another brush with death and my life was back to normal. Except, I half suspected, I might just have a new friend … Life could be a lot worse …
To be continued … ?
Once Upon a Spinning-Wheel:Published in