Short story written in 2013.
When the first creature died, Death was born. Swaddled in shadow, he was charged to ferry souls into the beyond, following the pull of ending life to appear wherever he was needed. He fluttered from place to place, an indistinguishable black mass, bringing souls to the edge of being. He did not so much guide as accompany, the path and destination as much a mystery to him as it was to the consciousness passing. Death followed only his instincts because that’s all there was: flowing instincts and ethereal form.
It took Death a hundred million years to develop true awareness of his existence and begin to remember. It took him another hundred million years to gain control of his smoky physique. The process was gradual. A twitch in his upper half, a twinge in his lower, a new puff of smoke where there had previously been none. With great focus, Death found he was able to shift his form into any shape that suited him or the soul he was ferrying. Creatures in the early years were simple, and so were his forms.
Some times were busier than others, particularly mass extinctions where Death would ferry entire species away from life, but dying was a constant. It was all consuming and Death accepted his role.
Then came the humans. Slowly at first, little more than the primates he was all too familiar with transporting. But then they changed, and Death observed with mild interest. They spoke to each other in tongues which were foreign to Death, but he could quickly learn as he began to understand their development. The humans began to build, and expand, developing cities, comfortable in their bipedal fleshy form.
Death grew curious. He spent a millennia trying to perfect a mimicry of the human form. He managed the silhouette of an adult male, slightly taller and thinner than average, a gaunt, smoky skeleton figure. When shuttling the human souls it became useful. Humans were the creatures most defiant of his inevitable appearance, even though they knew of him and feared him. Death found his newly developed shape was terrifying to them and could frighten the belligerent souls into submission.
He did not want to be a figure of horror to the humans he found so interesting, but what else could he do? The humans would cling to life with all the force in their very being. Sometimes even the liveliest of humans, to whom he should have been completely invisible, would whirl around mid-step and cast a harsh, panicked glare upon him and whatever spirit he was transporting. Death would freeze under the stare and watch as the searching eyes slid across him and the distracted human would turn back to their business. Their animal companions would do the same. Domesticated dogs and cats would bark and hiss at Death about on his rounds. These newly aware creatures made Death a hated constant.
The rise of humanity also brought Death the feeling of loneliness. He was a solitary creature, sent to reap souls and had no equivalent. His only companions were souls and they hardly noticed him beyond the initial fear then dazed complacency. He watched the humans pair off, form friends, have children. They felt so much. And Death felt only alone.
It was a Tuesday and Death was on his rounds, he had shuttled along a boatful of migrants, a family in a car accident, an old man at home, and countless others when he felt the call once again. He appeared on a street corner in the suburbs of the mid-west. Simple houses with green lawns stretching on, beyond that sweeping fields of grain. What was odd was the complete desolation. Not a creature in sight. However, Death knew he was always pulled for a reason, and followed the tugging in his core down the street. He glided down the neighborhood street passively watching thick storm clouds that matched his own coloring spread towards him.
He paused for a moment and watched the wind push the clouds across the horizon. He always felt an odd sort of affinity with clouds. They twisted, pulled, and receded just as his own body did, but they were rarely as terrifying as he was. Storm clouds, however, were the exception, bringing fear and worry into the hearts of humans and animals alike. The clouds currently rolling in were particularly frightening. The sun was blotted out so that the streetlights flickered on far prematurely. A deep and distant rumble of thunder drew a whimper out of a nearby bush. Death turned to the shrubbery, as lightning struck a nearby power line with a sharp flash and sparks casting the street into darkness.
The wind picked up suddenly, a distant roar drawing Death’s attention. A funnel reached its tendril down from the sky. Ah, a tornado. Death was highly familiar with the rogue wind funnel, a beast known to direct his workload. The whimper returned again pulling Death’s focus back to the bush before him. He approached and ducked down to peer at what soul he was to accompany following this tornado. A pair of moist brown eyes whimpered back up at him. Death recoiled at the sight of the youthful, bright eyed golden retriever huddled beneath the shrub. The dog gazed up at him, unafraid. And Death stepped back even further. The dog followed the recoiling figure, and attempted to settle himself around Death’s hazy feet. Death was startled. Not only had the young animal noticed him, the dog had approached him without fear, seeming to seek comfort in his inevitability. He glanced up and surveying the approaching tornado before looking back at the dog.
His eyes shifted quickly between the dog and the tornado, before he felt the tug in his gut again. But for the first time in his millions of years of existence, he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t pull the life from this dog. Just as the dog had sought comfort from him, he had found reassurance in the creature. Working only on instinct, Death shifted his form to absorb the cowering animal into his smoky being, before following the pull of the next soul: an old man in El Salvador. He appeared on another street, this one lined by decrepit shanties and thick jungle foliage. He relaxed as he stopped in his spot. He looked around and saw no sign of the dog.
Death turned to walk down the street when he heard a bark from behind him. He whirled around, to be met by the same golden retriever, completely unharmed, barking and clawing insistently at the decaying door of a shack. Death, shocked, glided over to the door beside the dog. The dog set a sure look upon him, and Death passed silently through into the house, upon which the scratching and barking stopped. The old man in question laid upon the lone bed in the house.
With an exhale, his soul was released from the body, and stood before Death on an equal plane. The old man’s soul smiled at Death, seeming to welcome him. Death gestured to his side, where glowing mass appeared. The soul bowed, before carefully flowing through the glowing spot into the beyond. Death’s hand fell back to his side, exiting the house to find the dog sitting patiently outside the house. Tail wagging the dog jumped up to follow Death. The creature felt a different sort of tug in his stomach. A happy tug, accompanied by the typical call of duty.
The dog ran to Death’s feet once more, curling into a ball and seeming to brace himself for transport. If Death had had a mouth, he would have smiled, and made a mental note to try to form one next time he got to practice. He followed the call and continued his work, the faithful golden retriever by his side.
Death wasn’t quite sure how his being functioned. He knew he was much more than human, even though he seemed to think and understand humans better than any other species. He also knew he must not be the only creature of his kind. There were far too many living creatures dying at any given moment for one spirit of Death to ferry. And there were lulls where he would be free to wander without any call for carrying.
These lulls were once lonely flows of boredom, where Death would glide around aimlessly attempting to pass the time. He would watch the humans in a most passive way, unable to interact or connect with their daily, temporary existences. He would find a place quiet and away from animal life and simply sit. Deserts and high mountains were especially good for this, at least until the humans got adventurous and began to explore.
But now, the breaks were a chance to try to connect with this new creature he had accidentally ‘adopted’. Death’s act of sparing the golden retriever apparently went unpunished. By freeing the dog from the obligation of death, the canine no longer needed to eat and was content to follow Death wherever he went. When the pull brought them to a sandy North Carolina beach to reap the soul of a drowned child, the dog ran into the waves, splashing and flopping around with pure joy. Death watched with a small smile from his spot on the beach. The dog found happiness and fun in a business Death had thought was only sorrow. Death enjoyed the company of his new companion, a solid, handsome creature so opposite his smoky shifting self.
Death was mute. He had never needed to communicate with another creature through speech. But the dog was very much a talker. He barked and howled, whimpered and snarled. Whatever happened to suit him at the time. So, to interact with his friend, Death took to trying to speak. He could understand many languages, including the dogs simplified barking, but he did not know how to make his thoughts external.
It took years, beginning only as a rasp like a cough from the back of Death’s self-formed throat before emerging in a more complete form of a growling mumble. After a decade experimenting, grumbling, garbled yelling, and whimpering, Death spoke his first word aloud to his only friend.
Death had spent enough time around humans to know they named their animal companions. He continued his daily duties in relative silence contemplating a name for his friend. The dog didn’t offer one up, but upon being called, “Dog,” the golden retriever fixed Death with a stony stare that could only be interpreted as, “Try again.” He thought for weeks, thinking through the catalogues of names of all those he had ferried. He thought of all the creatures and wonders he had seen, in all the languages he had ever known.
Upon saving the dog, Death had imparted some of his skills in sensing the passing of souls. The golden retriever had a far greater accuracy in pinpointing the exact location of the dying than Death did on his own. The dog could also sense the pull, gradually gaining the ability to materialize wherever the dying creature was, rather than having to be carried by Death. The dog was his working companion and far more than just good company.
One rainy Wednesday in Rome, the pair was attending to the passing of a young child in a biking accident when a name came to Death. They completed sending the soul to the beyond and travelled to an isolated shore in Canada. The dog loved to splash around in the ocean, thrilled beyond reason to get his long golden fur wet and stinking. Death settled on the sand, listening to the crash of the waves, before he spoke.
“I have come up with a name for you, my friend,” he called out over the water, his voice gravelly and deep with disuse. The dog twisted to look at Death, running up to him tail wagging in almost a complete circle. Death laughed in the same rough timbre, running a transparent hand through his fur, before divulging the name to his patiently waiting, most loyal, and only friend.
One cold winter day, Death and Mercury found themselves pulled to the furthest reaches of what Death had begun to consider their ‘territory,’ the edge of the Canadian wilderness. Here a moose had slipped into a ravine and broken its back. Death worked his way down to the ravine. Mercury moved to follow but Death stopped him with a raised hand. The ravine was steep and would have taken the dog quite a while to maneuver his way down. It would be quicker for him to wait.
“Stay here, my friend. I will be but a moment,” he said in his crackling voice before shifting down into the ravine. Mercury sat at the edge of the ravine and waited patiently, tail still wagging.
Death carefully beckoning to the glowing moose hovering over its former fleshy form. The moose flowed easily, as most animals did, through the small glowing portal into the beyond, not questioning its path. As Death worked, his nonexistent ears detected the deep growling bark of a dog, one that could only be Mercury. The bark was one Death had not yet heard from his friend: one of aggression and fear. Death hurried the moose through the portal as much as he could before leaping up out of the ravine in a misty bolt of black to the spot where Mercury had been moments before. He spun around looking for his friend and saw only snow and the highest pines. A whimpering bark sounded from a distance behind him and Death immediately fluttered off in the direction the sounds came from.
Death flew after the sound, the woods ending and white tundra stretching on. In the distance, he saw a dark mass quickly pursuing Mercury. Death urged himself forward, forcing himself to go faster and faster until he was able to position himself betweenhis friend and the dark form. The mass reared back with a deafening roar, and within the beast he saw himself. A younger form of himself, thousands of years before. Another collector of souls, one who never saw humanity as a model for their existence, one who never learned to speak, one who never taught themselves to shift form, to love anything else like he loved Mercury. And this being had come to collect what he had not been able to. Mercury could sense the monster’s intention and was cowering behind his own reaping creature, seeking protection just as he had when they had first met. Death faced his primitive other and shifted back to consume Mercury. He followed another pull to whisk them away, back to where they were safe.
They found themselves in a desert, pulled by the murder of a young man buried in a shallow sandy grave. Death smiled down at Mercury, the dog now content and relaxed. He brushed an amorphous hand over him, speaking with his gruff voice.
“We’re alright my friend. We’ll be alright.”