I was Child-Death, Death-in-Innocence, Death-Without-Care.
For centuries I skipped and swirled among men, choosing by the shining blue eyes or the flippant turn of cheek.
I brushed my fingers through the hearts of women in love, through men basking in victory, through grandmothers and babies rocking on porches and in cradles.
I laughed and carried them with me through the adamantine gates.
I sang – for it was a blissful, joyous, never-ending task. Choosing the ones to die.
My lips caressed the heated forehead to end suffering, they pressed dryly to the bride’s happiness, the contented husband, angry son, hopeful mother.
Whole swathes of humanity cut down when I danced over fields of battle and through towns. I was Death who takes you with a kiss and stops your breath when you have survived the plague, endured the rage of battle, out-screamed the hurricane’s roar.
When it amused me.
I held high my torch in the processions of the Witch Queen and Persephone. I lived for the idiocy, the senselessness, the ecstasy and heaven of life-removed, of dark-dreams, of unreasoning, random, there-is-no-pattern Death.
Until I opened my eyes and felt cool grass beneath my back and a breeze dragging lazily at my hair. I was child no longer, but a woman; young and ripe with hips and breasts and a slow smile. My skin tingled under the pale spring sun. Purple flowers bent over me, bobbing greeting, and the sky was brighter than any joy I’d known.
I was still. Stillness suited my new flesh, for I felt blood pumping within it and pressed a small hand between my breasts to feel the rhythm of my heart. I breathed. I felt the cool air flood my lungs and disseminate through my body. Slowly, I parted lips plump with blood, tasted the sky with the tip of my tongue – and it was delicious.
My fingers dug through the thick grass and found cold earth, gritty and fresh and wet. I was alive. I felt the zing and heat of the pattern of it, flowing from the earth to the flowers, dancing around and within me and reflecting up at the sun with its white-gold fire.
I sat, all my muscles tight and fluid. A girl stood there, a foot away in the meadow. She was young and sweet. I liked the way her neck curved, and I could see the pulse of her blood. I smiled, slowly, for every motion was new and fresh. My face stretched as the smile affected all its planes. “Hello,” I whispered.
And I grasped her neck in my hand. Her eyes bulged and she gripped my wrist. I squeezed and she scratched at me, dragging herself back by her heels. I was strong, and I leaned in and kissed her smooth, hot cheek.
I released her, stared at my hand, and then at her. She spun away and fled back through the flowers, shredding petals in her haste. I brought my fingers to my lips and touched them. They were dry and warm, and pulsed with life.
Life. I stood, and the flowers reached my knees. My toes curled into the earth. The meadow stretched in waves all around me like an inland ocean. To the east, where the child had fled, was an island of trees. I made my way toward it, slowly, each step bringing new knowledge to me, of the warmth of motion and bending of bones, of my blood and breath entwined, of my eyelashes catching in the wind, and the long caress of my hair down my back. I brushed my hands in the flowers as I went. The petals kissed me, and I laughed.
I paused at the edge of the trees, a thrill of fear shocking me. I did not want to leave the sunlight for shadows. How would I stay warm?
But I heard water splashing over stones, and was suddenly thirsty. Desire pinched at my tongue and I gasped. I wondered, too, if any river would lead me home to the Lethe.
In the shade, the wind was cooler and my skin puckered. I wrapped my arms around myself, and walked. My steps creaked over the soft forest carpet. The giggling water grew closer, and I quickened my pace. I found a stream and bent to it, dipping my hand into the cool water. It swallowed my hand and I leaned in, brought water up to my lips. Water fell through my fingers as I drank. My eyes fluttered closed. Life poured down my throat. I dipped my hand again, and drank more and more.
Cracking footsteps startled me, and I stood, turning toward the sound.
A man – a boy, really – halted at the creak’s edge, staring. A bucket dangled from one hand. He looked me up and down and said, “Jesus.”
I shook my head.
He averted his eyes abruptly, looking at the ground, the trees, the water – anywhere but at me. “Um, hey, do you need some help?”
“Yes,” I said, feeling again the pull of desire.
“Well, come this way, ok? I’ll get you some, uh, clothes, and when Dad gets back with the car tomorrow we can take you into town.” He glanced at my face, paused as though the words vanished from his mind, and then held out his hand. “Come on.”
I reached and put my fingers in his, and let him guide me.
“My name’s David. Do you… have one?” He laughed, nervously. “I mean, of course you do.”
“Many,” I said.
He paused again, sliding a sideways look at my face. “Such… as?”
I thought, watching him as he struggled to hold my gaze. I smiled. “Bliss.”
“Bliss,” he repeated, nodding. And he smiled. I started to move closer, but he continued walking.
He led me to a clearing, where a cabin squatted like a dark old man with pipe-smoke snaking out of the chimney. A radio blared guitar and drums, and there was a separate garage with the door swung up to reveal easels and a long table and bench covered in paint jars and brushes and canvass and wood. I smelled harsh oil.
“Wait here,” he said, and left.
I stood in the center of the workshop and studied the paintings. They were sketches mostly, with streaks of color adding depth and shadow. Forest images, haunting and fresh.
“Here.” David held out a shirt and long pants. I took them and put them on. Each button on the shirt was a tiny metal disc and I concentrated on their dim shine.
When I was dressed, I sat back on one of the tall stools. “Your paintings are lovely.”
“Thanks. Um, actually, don’t move.” He grabbed a large pad of paper and a handful of pencils, and began to draw rapidly. His eyes flicked between me and the paper, and I grew warm as I realized I would be able to see an image of myself; see his image of me.
I slouched, feet hooked over the rungs of the stool, and watched him work. His hair fell constantly into his eyes and he brushed it away with impatience, and his left foot tapped an irregular rhythm on the concrete floor that had nothing to do with the bluegrass streaming from the radio. I wanted to suck the life out of him – only, the wish felt habitual, unreal. What I really wanted was to touch him, to run with him back out into the meadow and lie down with him.
The door of the house opened, and the little girl from the meadow crept onto the porch, craning her neck out to see me. I waved. She shrieked and darted back inside.
David glanced up. “Mindy?”
“She’s frightened,” I said with a smile.
“She ran back in from the… oh, it was you. You must have startled her.”
My smile grew.
He was staring again. “God, you’re beautiful. Where – where did you come from?”
“You don’t remember?”
“I remember, but there is no name for it that you will understand.”
“Try me.” His lip twisted up on one side and he waited.
“Death. Hades. Chaos-shadows and crossroads.”
“I told you,” I said.
“No, I get it. You were at that hippie-pagan camp a few miles over. Too much peyote?”
“Death is drug enough.” I stood and walked to him. “Are you finished.”
“No.” He leaned away from me, holding his drawing up to his chest.
I touched the corner. “Let me see.” I gently bent it back.
The face on the canvass was thin and petite, dominated by eyes that raged with wind and black earth. My lips were parted and my hair long and thick as tree branches, but tangled like roots. I was a wild thing, still, but my cheeks flushed pink and there were hints of new-green peeking through my eyes. What god had made me thus? Had I angered the Witch Queen? Been banished by Acheron? I touched my own face. It was warm, and I dragged my fingers across my lips, then looked at him. “This is what I am?”
“Um. Yes?” His voice was breathy, and I saw blood rising into his cheeks, too.
I leaned in and kissed his cheek. He shivered. I imagined what it had felt like to drag life out of a boy like this, and David jerked back. His eyes were round as the sun, and his hands shook when I took them and put them on my hips. I kissed him again, on the lips.
This was like skipping and swirling, like dancing on the edge of death, but with a different kind of caress. I dragged David outside and onto the grass and pushed him down so he was between the earth and I, in one complete embrace. I broke all the buttons on my shirt, and laughed, then leaned in and kissed him again and again. He sang with me; not harsh groans of death, but lighter and harder.
I felt my skin expanding out into the world.
I felt his heart, and my fingers held it as it fluttered faster and faster, not into death, but something else. Something new. Different, but just as wild.
He did die, just a little. I left him, clothes discarded across the yard, to run back into the forest.