Who Lost Her to Keep Her
Every day he walked the same way to the hospital. Down the street, past the old man who would only serve a smile to those blessed and possessed of the feminine wiles. Nevertheless courtesy and habit forced a fruitless grin. Along the river, past the community farm, where excited children petted the docile and domesticated. Under the bridge, its heavy stone painted in the colourful chaos and striking symbols of unknown artists.
As he climbed the path out, a murder of crows gathered in rows along the churning power-lines overhead. Their squabbles sounded a syncopated siren drawing him to pause. The Wurundjeri thought them tricksters, who stole the seven's flame, and found their feathers blackened, coloured by the game.
The Romans read them for prophesy, the ancient art of augury. The founding brothers, raised by wolves, fatally fought over Rome's location, by counting their presence on the distant hills. He tallied six in total, which was the fate of poor old Remus. He would have been less troubled if the number were doubled, but the sentence is set when you've seen it. To him they were more of an order, less of an omen, a message to pay close attention to the world around him. He searched the sky and then the ground, and there a curious object he found.
It had forty eight slices in vertical risers, forming a perfect half circle. The staggered heights suggested a pattern that looked somehow familiar in the tips of the crescent crown. Two eyes were carved in the timber which he traced, hypnotised, with his nimble fingers.
As he placed the mask up to his face he felt a certain sense of strangeness, like a second set of eyes. Like love was landing on the objects which he spied. And he sensed the stares of others too, after all it must be said, who wears a thing like this in plain view?
He entered the ground floor of the unimpressive brick building, only made modern by signage. Up the creaking elevator, past the exhausted and overworked nurses. He gave them a playful nod and the grand gesture of a bow. The reception was mixed, both eye rolls and sniggers - it was about what he had figured.
Down the hall, through the stench of sickness, sanitisation and suspect food he arrived finally at her room. Inside a single square window on the far wall lit the bed where she lay unconscious in the sleep that would keep her indefinitely, ever since she fell to The Fever, fifteen days before.
He hated that he could not see her eyes. The outer iris of cobalt blue, transitioned through an emerald green sea to the cinnamon shores at the centre. They had a depth and detail which seemed supernatural, like a photographer's contrast turned up way past the actual. The lift of her lip, her small rounded nose, and the details he saw that no one else knows. He took her hand and kissed it gently as a warm hello, then took his watchful position, in the plastic seat below.
From the bedside table he took a tattered copy of her favourite Nabokov novel and began to read:
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff - and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
And from the inside, too, I'd duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I'd let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow...
He stopped suddenly as a familiar feeling swept through him. A rush of energy plumed up his back, through his chest and toppled over the crown of his head. The sensation suggested something sightless was here. So when he raised his gaze slowly, he did not expect to see the figure floating at the foot of the bed.
The apparition appeared frail and gaunt, her white hair reaching chaotically in all directions. Where her eyes should have been, there was nothing; no colour, shape or form. Just a void that seemed to window a dark and endless storm. A tattered white smock hung loosely over her frame which faded into the floor. She looked, distressingly, almost exactly like his mother, taken from time so long ago. But the faintest of whispers assured him that the essence of this presence was something else entirely.
"Cute mask", she said dismissively with a wry smile.
"'O make me a mask and a wall to shut from your spies, of the sharp, enamelled eyes'" he cautiously replied.
The figure was somewhat taken aback; not used to being seen, not used to being heard, and not used to being quipped at by the living.
"Do you always talk like that?" her voice piqued with interest.
"My mother – god bless her, always with gin on her breath – said: 'Choose your words carefully when talking with death.' " he said with a casual calmness. "But I don't think she knew, her form would be you."
Death gave an irreverent chuckle that was surprisingly low and sonorous. It sounded like an echo in a tremendous tunnel and seemed to search the room for a target. She smiled broadly.
"A clever boy, and so confident too."
Artemis was, in fact, terrified. It was more a sombre sense of ceremony that allowed him to keep a level disposition. Every time she spoke the same rush seemed to flush through the fibres of his body. Her voice, somehow both sharp and wide, seemed to work in reverse. It felt like it's origin was between his eyes on the inner side and flowed out mischievously from there. He felt a cold that seemed to rest on his very heart but also a certain excitement at facing the infamous dark. After all, the five petal rose emblazoned on the flag of death’s tarot was tattooed on his upper chest. Underneath, a giant set of wings spread across his heart. For he believed that death brought freedom, liberation from a world which he felt as meaningless and cruel.
At least, he had once believed that. Before he met her. Now there was nothing from which to run. What he wanted was a long life by her side. To protect and respect her. Kids and cats and warm nights by the fire. He had rescheduled a long and contented life with her ahead of the inevitable flight. Now the liberator that he once dreamed of meeting was here, but here for the wrong person and here at the wrong time.
"So, you see your mother then? Curious. You wear that foolish rose on your chest. Is that supposedly mine? Did you pull it from that doomish little deck? I'm surprised you caught the gist without my ‘skull and scythe, and a big pale horse to ride’ ” she spat mockingly.
"Yes, you look like her to me, what is it that others see?" he asked.
"I have no form, not one that you could understand. I have no words, no tone. You filter me through the familiar. You see your fear, what you hear is your interpretation. Anyone can do it, within reason, but your kind has long given up on seeking the speechless. Only as I drag them clutching and screaming from their material obsession do they generally start to see. Like I took your mother when you were thirteen. Your soulless cities and indulgent lives have built ignorance in around your eyes.
“Those that leave freely have no need of me. I only come for the type that fight, who will not go gentle into the good night. Accordingly, they project any number of trite clichés. Big black capes, and a skeleton face. Some see the devil, some see a crone, horribly offensive I hope you know. Your tricksy little mask seems to be aiding the process. Where did it come from?"
Artemis brushed the question lightly and tried to take control of the queries.
"It was a gift from some mirrorless maker. Where are you going to take her?"
There was a pause as death seemed to contemplate allowing the somewhat tactless redirect.
"Not for you to know.” She spoke shortly. “Suffice to say somewhere somewhat less than the religious expect, and somewhat more than the godless. Both have lost their place. Both have forgotten that I am the balance of life, not its enemy. Both know nothing but their own messianic myopia."
Artemis considered everything death had told him. For all the fear it struck into the heart of man she seemed a surprisingly touchy ma’am. He began to form the loose vision of a plan. There may be a way to save her. There might be a way to trick death at hand.
"So, if I am to understand your role, it seems you are merely a delivery soul?" He inquired with a sheepish cheek.
"Watch it" came the ripe retort.
"A whole species of sapiens cowers in fear, counting the days that your power draws near. But it turns out you're just a retriever, no real choice or control, just an ephemeral lever." Artemis continued to jab at the bruises he felt in her ruses.
"Choice" death intoned "is a complicated thing in my world. Decisions have implications, loose plans are in place, stray souls make problems as lost souls make waste. I alone cannot control fate, but I can fiddle the with flow a little, ripple a wake. Will is not free so much as measured, limited in scope. Not unlike yours you know.”
"Then prove that your will is at least partially free, instead of her, take me. Show that the faces they gave you are wrong, show her compassion, let her live long."
There was a tense pause in the room. It was only then that Artemis realised there were no other sounds. No interminable beeping, no muffled groaning, or shuffling feet. Time itself had taken a beat.
Death hovered silently.
Without a word she slowly raised her hands over the bed and then began to draw them back towards her.
As she did so, what appeared as a wet black quilt drew from the body of his sleeping lover. In its wake her pale skin seemed flush with colour. Death raised her arms to pull out the last, her hands dripping with the darkness of illness past.
When it was over, she reached out to Artemis: "Now little pet, shall we?"
"There are two others who are standing before you. If it's my spirit you want then get in the queue" he said, suppressing a slight quaver.
Death gave another churlish chuckle, mildly annoyed and reluctantly ruffled.
"Is that so my dear? A little game to be playing tricks with death aren't we. Very well. Pray tell, who is standing in front of you?"
From the moment he had placed the mask on he knew, without doubt, that two forces stood in his corner. And that the mask itself was a contract of sorts. Still, it was a gamble, he thought.
"The soul of the moon, the weight of the air - they have a heart that between them they share. The mask is a cover so each are my keeper, it comes with the name of Artemis Aether."
The holes where death’s eyes were meant to be grew larger, as the boundaries of her face twisted and contorted. The figure rose high in the room as darkness pulled the light from every corner. The mangled face drew long out of the body like a snake stalking its prey. Stopping inches away it let out a chilling scream that seemed to come from everywhere, to resonate from everything, to tear at the very fabric which held the world together. Artemis closed his eyes and covered his ears with his hands but it seemed to have no effect. He still saw the face, still heard the scream.
He opened his eyes, and lowered his hands. Death was once again floating peacefully at the foot of the bed. She gave her tattered gown a brisk dust down and looked squarely back at him.
"Noble. Brave, yet cowardly and naive. You don't know the rules do you? I don't suppose your new 'keepers' explained them to you. You are stumbling defiantly in the dark. In a world that you do not know or understand. They can only be your bodyguards while you wear it you know? As soon as you take it off you're like any other, and I will come for you."
Death stopped and seemed to think on this for a moment.
"But then again, perhaps there is a better punishment" and a large smile of self-satisfaction spread across her face.
“Yes, that’s it. You want to see my power? You want to see my choice? Tell me, what happens in your fairy tales and fables when one tries to cheat me? Poe and his masque of red, the candles of life and Godfather Death. How did it end for them?
“What you forget in your yearning for youth is that my existence is what makes your days worth a damn. It is not my presence that brings torment, but my absence. Consider yourself lucky, if I really wanted to punish you, I would simply never return. But this solution has a bit of bitter poetry...”
She raised her still dripping hands and began to fashion the black liquid into a perfect replica of the mask he wore. The spires rising slowly like jagged rocks from retreating water, as she weaved the details into every corner. When complete, it drifted silently across the room, coming to rest on the face of his lover.
"There you go, a perfect match!” Death chirped proudly. “Only hers comes with a different set of rules. This mask can be seen by none but you, it can be broken by none but you. A single touch of your hand will shatter its invisible form, all the illness will rush to her body, and I will return to collect that which was taken from me.
“As for you Mr. Aether, you've a choice to make, would you stake the life you saved? Do you think she'll buy the story you try to sell of how death made a mask and a mischievous spell?
“If you really wish to save her, I wouldn't be here when she wakes. You will live long, but your days will be solitary and slumberless, and the shadows you live with - numberless. She will be only one of two you will wish to return here to you."
Death floated closer to and leant aggressively over.
"Don't. Fuck. With. Me." She stilted in a halting but playful tone.
Her form evaporated slowly into the air as the functional noises of hospital life faded back up. Shuffling papers, murmured conversations. He sat hunched in the cheap plastic chair, slowly lowered the mask and turned it in his hands. He had saved her, that was true, and there is no-one on this earth that belongs to you.
She was beginning to stir beside him, to shift restlessly, as if waking from a long and soothing sleep. He continued to turn the mask, locked by indecision and melancholy. By the injustice of a kind, that sometimes you must leave the one you love, so that they may survive.
She woke to see the sunlight streaming in, she curled and stretched and lifted her chin.
"I dreamt I heard you reading to me" she said before looking to see.
But the room was empty, no-one was there. All she could find, left on the chair, was the mask of Artemis Aether, who lost her to keep her.