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Card Challenge: Day 24

Card Day 24: A man sits below a tree, up to his waist in yellow sand. Above him is a tree branch, covered in birds that he conducts in song. From the branch, a spider descends.

Death sat at the edge of the bed, looking at the frail man beneath the sheets. His breaths were shallow and rattling, and his pulse was visible through the paper thin skin of his wrists. Gently, Death lifted his hand and placed it atop the man’s.

Edmund opened his eyes slowly, as if they were held shut by an incredible weight. He did not respond with fear or sorrow to the specter, but smiled the same way he did when his grandchildren roared into the sterile hospital room. It was a look of weary joy, speaking of all the ambivalences long life encompasses. His voice creaked when he spoke, an organ that had deteriorated from the booming orator’s voice of his youth. Now it was a scratchy whisper, wavering like a twig in a summer’s storm.

“I figured you’d come around soon.”

Death smiled, his eyes softening. “It is about that time.”

“You don’t look like I thought you would. Too much….skin.” The rest of Edmund’s words and thoughts faded off as he stared up at death. There was no skeletal face, no heavy black hood. The ephemeral spirit did not even carry a scythe. Instead, Death was a man in a black suit and tie, his hair trimmed and lying neatly in dark brown waves. His shoes were sharp and polished, one balanced precisely atop his knee while the other tethered him to the tile floor. Beside him sat a leather briefcase with complicated looking cylinders on top. In an unsettlingly human motion, Death repositioned his wire-rimmed glasses on his nose and smiled.

“The shock and awe thing really isn’t necessary most of the time,” responded Death calmly.

Edmund grunted his answer, his breathing coming in irregular hiccups. Death gave him a sympathetic look as he carefully weighed his words.

“It is almost time, and it can be time now.”

Edmund closed his eyes, swallowed hard and nodded. He relaxed against the stiff hospital pillows, feeling the last bit of struggle fade out of his body. It was quiet, peace, and freedom. He opened his eyes, feeling suddenly light now freed of his medical burdens, and smiled back at Death.

“That was not nearly as bad as people say,” he chuckled.

Death echoed the laugh, the sound feeling somewhat hollow coming from the man at the end of the bed. “Those who complain have rarely met me. It’s libelous, really.”

Edmund continued to laugh, though there was no clear impetus for it. He laughed until his entire form shook, tears sliding down his ghostly face. He laughed so loudly that, had he still been a corporeal being, the whole hospital would have awoken. After a time, the laughter faded to an occasional chuckle. “What now?” he finally asked between snickers, his voice regaining its youthful tenor.

“Now, it’s time for the Great Beyond. But, as a courtesy, any final requests? Barring harming someone or restoring your life, I’m fair game for last wishes.”

Edmund grew serious for a moment, pondering this unexpected opportunity. “I suppose…” his voice trailed off as he considered the question. “Well, after being locked up in here, I’d like one thing. I’d like to see one last bit of beauty in this life. I miss things besides grey walls, fluorescent bulbs, and tile floors.”

Death nodded, pursing his lips in thought. “That’s a tall order, Mr. Graves.”

Edmund shrugged. “I figure you’re the man who can make it happen.”

In a fluid, graceful movement, Death bent and retrieved the briefcase from the floor. His fingers danced over the tumblers in some well-practiced numbers, the case opening with a satisfying click. “I think I have just what you need.” He pulled a smooth stone from the case, and then closed it with a click. At that sound, the hospital walls faded away, making way for a broad, darkening sky. Edmund joined Death atop some pristine mountain peak, watching the sun set over a valley of impossible peaks and valleys. The colors spread across the sky like a spilled oil painting, creating shades that only existed for that moment. Death turned to Edmund, smiling with pride. “Beautiful, eh?”

Edmund shrugged, looking unimpressed. “I suppose, but I saw more beautiful sunsets when Agnes and I were dating. We used to sneak off to Lover’s Point and watch it set. This is nice and all, though,” he finished, suddenly sheepish and concerned her appeared ungrateful.

“No worries, Edmund. I aim to please, but even I miss the mark occasionally. Let’s try something else.” He delved back into the briefcase, returning with a paintbrush.

“Listen, Death, if the real thing ain’t gonna do it for me, a painting won’t either. I think we can skip that one. I’ve never been one for galleries and all that. My grandson had some art up in those things, and they were beautiful, but most of its just trying to capture what we can see with our own eyes. Or some modern mumbo jumbo.”

Death chuckled and returned the brush. “You’re a man who knows what he likes. I like that. Maybe we change tack.” He snapped the briefcase shut, holding a single sheet of music. The mountain gave way to the concert hall, filled with a celestial blend of instruments and human voices. They rose and fell in harmony, creating a slight echo that left feelings of nostalgia for each passed moment, while spurring the listener into the next marvelous note. The words were unimportant, but the sound seemed to wrap the entire hall in a shell of impenetrable peace. Death looked at Edmund, expecting to see his mouth agape and eyes wide. The man instead had a look of polite appreciation, and smile good naturedly at Death.

“Oh, now this is very nice. Reminds me of when Nina, my daughter, was in choir. She had the voice of an angel. I swear, nothing more beautiful than that.” Realizing what he had said, Edmund fumbled for an apology. “Not that this isn’t nice. It’s quite nice. Beautiful, even. Thank you, Death.”

Death shook his head and sigh. “Edmund, I promised you a last request, and I do take pride in keeping my word. Let me try one last thing. I think I’ve got you figured out.”

Another expedition into the briefcase, another item retrieved. This time, it was a scuffed metal fork. Death smiled as the concert hall walls faded, as the sound dimmed to a memory, and the ruckus of family dinner took over.

Edmund found himself in the midst of a family Thanksgiving some years hence. Nina and her husband John were smiling and laughing, Tracie played the piano while the smell of a slightly overdone bird wafted through the house. Jason and Michael were lying in the floor, putting together a puzzle. He saw piles of coats in the hallway, heard the hubbub of activity in the kitchen were Marsha was putting the finishing touches on the big spread, enlisting a joyful David to cart it all to the long table. Edmund smiled, and Death saw tears stinging at the man’s eyes.

“Well, now, I guess you finally got my number, Death. Nothing more beautiful than that. Nothing at all.”


Creative Commons License
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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