My death is coming, but I am not afraid. A careful man prepares for death.
Those were my father’s last words. My father was a careful man.
Yet in the end, a death found him.
The branches of the bleak forest creak and sway. I wonder if they’re strong enough to hold me. I could meet my death falling. Wouldn’t that be ironic? It is a risk, and I do not like risks. Like my father, I am a careful man. The branches creak, but they do not break. I picked this spot to see the distance, with a cliff behind so I need not worry about my back. My eyes see nothing can be seen but the grey-white branches, against a grey-white smudge of winter sky, separate, but never quite distinct. Something between a shimmer and a smudge. Dry old tree bones; waiting to be reborn, they hide now from Cold Death, as they hide me from my own.
So many trees met the Axe Death at my father’s hands, as he cut and cut, building mountains of their bones, to keep that same Cold Death at bay.
“In the coldest night of winter,” he told me, “the trees hold the heat of summer in their hearts.”
It was true of animals, too, and some nights we burned their fat. All living things carry the heat of summer within them.
In the end a death found him. But it was not the Cold Death.
I wait for my death in the tree near the hill’s crest, with a long view of the trail. I listen, but I hear nothing except the creak of the trees, the hiss of the iced over river down the way, the whisper of wind, the soft scuff of my boots on the bark, and the low rumble of my stomach. The branches yet hold me, because what my father told me was true: the heat of summer was in them, waiting to wake in spring.
Every spring we would plow the earth, and plant the seeds, from dawn until dusk, we pulled cold stones from hard earth each year. There were always more stones.
“The Hungry Death will come,” said my father, as he wiped the sweat from his eyes and stretched the aching muscles of his back, “but these seeds will scare them away.” Then he placed another stone upon the pile.
In the end, a death found him. But it was not the Hungry Death.
I remember the scent of the tilled earth. Here, in the forest, there is no smell but distant smoke and the nearness of the damp wool that clothes me. The Cold Death claims the rest. Are scents alive, I wonder?
The branch shatters, pieces dropping away, and me with them.
I fall, and I catch myself, dangling for a moment, above the stones. The branch I hold bends, but it holds me, too. I picked this place because there were branches to grab. Like my father, I am a careful man. I remember, staring down at the cold Stone Death below, that branches die even when trees live. They’re everywhere.
“The Small Deaths are everywhere,” my father told me, as we stacked the stones from that year’s field pile onto the wall, building it up. “And this wall will stop most of them.”
He groaned and massaged his back, then he lifted the next stone.
In the end, a death found him. But it was not a Small Death.
I lift myself back into the tree, choosing a thicker branch to stand on. I had passed it by earlier because it is more exposed, more visible. I am hiding from my death, but only until I can see it coming. I do not know what my death will be, but I feel it coming. I feel it hunting.
“Death hunts all of us,” my father told me, long ago.
“Even me?” I asked.
“Especially you,” said my father, nodding, and tugging at his wiry beard with gnarled hands. “Death loves to hunt children, because they are small, and easy victims; like lambs to wolves. Three of your sisters, and one of your brothers, the Deaths have taken.” He looked far away, then, at brothers and sisters I could not see, who lived only in memory. Then he shook his head and lifted me over a broad shoulder with a grunt, whisking me off towards the well. “Now off we go to wash our hands and faces, to keep the Sickening Death away.”
In the end, a death found him. But it was not the Sickening Death.
I am bored. Boredom is a friend of the Deaths. It robs the mind of sense, exposes weaknesses . . . I resolve to stay alert, and focus on the world. I hear what I have heard; the creaking trees. I see what I have seen; the swaying bone branches against the gray winter sky. I feel what I have felt; the dry wood beneath my hands. I smell what I have smelled; the smoke of burning wood.
The wind shifts.
Then I know my death, I see it because I have seen it all along, I hear it because I have heard it all along, I smell it because I have smelled it all along.
The Burning Death! The hungriest of deaths, who steals the air from your lungs and then meat from your bones. The death that feeds on the heat of summer within you.
I look behind, and there it is, the flicker and glow. Hidden until that moment by the cliff at my back.
I leap. I drop through the branches, they slow me, but do not stop me. I nearly fall—do fall, really, but I fall slowly enough, and land hard on the cold ground.
The Burning Death is hungry. It does not flow like water; it swallows the trees in leaps, bounding from one to the next, swallowing each whole.
Water. The river. The river is my salvation. I run across the snow, and it robs me of strength. Each footfall breaks through the crust of ice. The ground is rocky beneath, because there are always more stones in the earth. One twist, one bend, one break, one sprain on hidden stone, and my Death will find me.
I slow down, because I am a careful man. A pace must be kept. Too fast is one death, too slow another.
“Never run faster than your footing!”
My father was angry. It scared me, because my father was never angry. He was kind, and patient.
“I’m fine!” I told him. My tone was not kind, or patient. Partly from annoyance, partly from the pain.
He sighed then, and looked me in the eyes. After a long moment, he said, “You will be, but you could have met a Stupid Death. And that is the worst kind. It is important to run, and to be fast, but you must know when to slow down, when to stop, my son. Do you understand?”
“Good,” he said. “And today, you learn how to set a broken arm, but first I will go get some snow. The ice will help the pain.”
In the end, a death found him. But it was not a Stupid Death.
The ice on the river is thin. Not from lack of cold but from the strength of the current.
The Burning Death or the Freezing Death?
I go down on my belly and slide across it. The sheets crack and break, and the water feels like the Burning Death as it soaks through my clothes. I manage to stay on top of the pieces. My hope is to be near enough the far shore to feel the bottom before I plunge through.
Hope is a fool’s friend. Near the middle, where the current is quickest, the ice hangs above the water, and I plunge down through it. Then I am under. I am in the black. I am tumbling against stones and ice, indistinguishable. I feel their strikes but not the pain, for numbness has taken me. Still, I pull myself along. I push against the bottom, I push against the ice above.
There is light ahead, and I scramble desperately towards it. I nearly miss it, but arrive in time, with a thud of impact that I hear through my ears and through my flesh. Even numb, that hurts.
I hear the snap of a bone in my arm. I see the shock impact as a flash of light within me.
I am pinned against a large stone, in center stream, where the motion of the water has created a narrow space of clear water around it. I follow it up, and I find air. The air between the fire and the ice. I pull the knife from my belt and hack at the crust of ice until there is a hole large enough for me to squeeze through. The desperate hacking costs me half the knife’s blade, as it snaps, but it buys me my freedom.
I haul myself out, gasping for air. My heart pounds and I massage my chest.
My father massaged his chest and gasped for air, the day he died. He had felt the death coming, and he had, as he said, prepared. My father worked every day to stop the deaths, from the rise of the sun to the setting, and past.
A death found him in the end. It was the Fear Death.
“That is the way the Deaths,” he told me, once. “They hunt in packs. Like wolves, running from one chases you into the path of another.”
My salvation is short lived. The fire is racing towards me, the air is burning. I had been wrong about the river. The fire leaps across it above me as easily as a cat onto a fence. Burning I submerge myself beneath the cold water, watching the sky flash dancing orange above me.
It burns beneath the water, too. A minute later, my lungs begin to burn, too. I risk surfacing, and the shelter of my cave in the ice gives me clear air enough to breathe. Even here, though, there is the tang of smoke. The Burning Death is swift, and it moves quickly past in search of other things to devour. I am, for the moment, alive.
When I buried my father in the cold dark ground, I piled above him the stones which I had pulled from the earth while digging the grave. It was then that I said my last words to him. I did not say that Death could not be avoided, only, at most, chosen. He knew that, and in learning had taught me. The last thing he had taught me.
I only cleared my throat, and, placing my pack on my shoulders, said, “I am going now.”
I left the stones of the field and the stones of the walls, the fields, and many other things I had loved. Another would find them. And I went searching for my Death. All my Deaths. To find them, and to kill them.
I climb out of the water. My limbs are stiff and clumsy. The Cold Death would take me, but ground is littered with the burning trees of the fire’s passing. So as the Cold Death saves me from the Burning Death, and the Burning Death saves me from the cold.
I splint my arm while it’s still cold.. I don’t know if it lessens the pain; if so, I’m glad to avoid the full of it. I tie a long branch to it, the end wrapped in kindling and leftover cloth, soaked pitch. I build up the fire. Hours pass. The cold fades. The hunger grows.
I hear then a howling that is not the wind. The light of the fire returns from twin pinpricks in the shadows.
A Bloody Death is coming for one of us, then, to save the other from the Hungry Death. A growl from the darkness. My stomach growls in answer.
In my good hand, I hold half a knife.
My attacker rushes forward. I plunge the branch tied to my splinted arm into the fire, and it bursts to life even as I swing it forward and rush at my attacker. In a liquid twist of fur and muscle, breaks off to circle around, uncertain. It growls and fangs flash red in the firelight. I grin back. A careful man prepares for death.