by Matthew Reed
A corpse collector meets a stranger
|The bell jingled to warn everyone of the corpse collector’s approach. Sometimes people risked eyeing him from their windows but most listened for his cart to pass by. The only ones to stay and greet him were the dead and condemned. Not that they had a choice, the former being no longer able to be concerned and the latter were chained to their posts.
The world around him was little more than a shadow to him, less real to him than a fever dream if he had ever once dreamed. If he ever lived out a fantasy in his sleep, he did not remember. He was not alone in that regard, rich or poor, no one slept easy anymore, afraid to awake sick as he had.
His sight was hazy, the back of his eyes burning, his hearing was weak, and even if his mask was not stuffed with dried flowers and herbs to keep out the bad humors, his nose was too congested to smell anything. He was wandering about based on memory, retracing paths he had come to take so regularly. His reality was halfway anchored in the past, his mind lending brightness and depths his eyes were failing to capture, his vision dull.
He remembered when people simply threw the bodies out onto the streets. Some still did but most wised up when the pests came. Now there was a designated building in each neighborhood, a place where a whole family was claimed.
Things were getting better. There were less people so less death. The streets were not cleaner as much as they were more empty. The city had been beautiful in its own way beneath the rubbish and it would be beautiful once again after he was gone and they found new souls to clean in his place.
If the estimates were correct, more than ten thousand of the city dwellers had fallen. Not that he bothered to count after he had collected his hundredth body. Still, that would mean nearly one in five people had died, if he was the only one lost and his wife and children were spared, he would be counted among the blessed.
Being a corpse collector made him familiar with every ring of society except those rich enough to afford a plot on the overflowing graveyards and those the plague ignored. People were short of workers, so he was able to secure jobs for his children. They just needed to stay alive. He and his wife had been tempted to not even name their latest child and wait until it grew old enough to speak first but that seemed to invite disaster so they granted it a name and prayed it inherited its father’s, until that point, remarkable resistance.
Hygiene was something he learned late in life. For one whose very way of life was filth, remaining clean was something others did. There was a wrongness to wearing gloves, a constant discomfort for his hands that were sensitive to anything valuable to be found in litter.
Still, bathing had been noted to be a way to prevent the disease and other unpleasantries. The question for the corpse collector was whether he had the time to boil the water from the river. There had been bodies found floating on the banks with regularity. Splashing oneself with such water was little better than licking a cadaver.
He had gone five days without washing himself, only taking the time to wash his now worn and faded gloves. He had collected for himself quite a layer of dirt and stains to remind himself of his youth.
The city was still worse for wear, unclean even by the standards of those that dumped their rubbish from windows. Someone was needed to gather the bodies and those like the corpse collector that chose that field voluntarily were becoming less and less. To meet such ends, prisoners were conscripted, though usually to positions less mobile than his own.
Most of the felons he had met were convicted for nonviolent crimes. The worst things they bled were purses. Even under these conditions, a warden would be hesitant to set a murderer loose. It was still a possibility, as long as they did kill not someone of higher status, they might have avoided beheading and would be judged by the sickness. It would seem likely to only make matters worse but there were at least a few that split blood out and about. Fortunately, there had not been much trouble tied to the more violent offenders, the plague, strange as it may seem among all the death, was avoidable, a taskmaster’s blade was more certain.
He might have been one of those under a taskmaster’s not so gentle care if he had been bolder in his youth or the watchmen less willing to turn a blind eye. He had been a ragpicker, less than a thief, no more worthy of attention than a rat.
The moment he could walk was the moment he joined his own father in filtering through rubbish, maybe even before. He imagined himself fighting with feral dogs for scraps back when he still crawled. That was how he knew the world, to work as soon as one walked and to rest once one's feet were in the grave.
A priest had once told him the Redeemer had a profession but even the divine rested. The plague taught everyone death never rested. He did not get to bury that priest, the cleric had been loved enough to still have a funeral even in those trying times. He hoped to see the priest again soon, his lessons more important now than ever.
His breathing was heavy. He could no longer breathe from his nose. He failed to hold back a rattling cough. The mask muffled only so much. People likely heard him but had little left to care.
He knew the symptoms better than most. Even the furthest from danger were listening for rumors to know what to look out for. The first sign was sores in the mouth, after that one only had a week to live.
He did not regret his life. He searched for anything and everything so he valued everything. He started in the gutters and in the final chapter of his life, he knew just about every street and corner and had been paid enough to afford an apartment for his family and himself. Sharing an apartment with too many people as he had before was a death sentence in such times. There were many vacancies with many landlords absent to check the tenants but even the desperate hesitated to take refuge in rooms familiar with the sickness.
The two most common ways the plague killed was from either one's throat swelling shut or one drowning in one's own secretions. Physicians treated the former by cutting a hole into the patient's windpipe to make them breathe through the neck. Most died from that procedure, others were claimed later by infection. Those that survived the initial week would then discover that the sores rotted, those few that endured developed holes in their flesh wherever the spots once were. The worst case the body collector had seen was someone whose neck was eaten almost entirely through.
He left his apartment as soon as he noticed his own infection, returning only to look from afar to see if he brought doom to his home. From what he could tell, they had been spared.
He thought over his last words to them, the lesson everyone on the streets should already know, "Look after yourselves."
This was his fifth day alone, he should have had two more but he knew he had pushed his luck too far. By some miracle, he had avoided it until then but death was impatient for him.
Some part of him was eager for the end the moment he realized he would never hold anyone close again. What good would those extra two nights be if he spent them alone in an alley as he had the previous five?
His journey brought him to a former home turned charnel house. Chained inside was a relatively large man, mistakable for some paid muscle rather than a convicted thief if not for the clever gleam in his eyes. The watcher waved in greeting as the collector brought the cart as close to the entryway as possible.
The two knew each other by name. Even if they did not, they would know each other by sight, there were few other souls willing to interact with them. To see a familiar face, even one half hidden beneath a mask did wonders to lift the spirit. It gave a sense of solidarity when all else seemed to be crumbling.
They then began to move the bodies into the cart, the watcher dragging the cadavers out and the collector taking them. They kept their distance as they normally did. They both had touched corpses and one could have been less lucky or hardy than the other. In this case, the watcher was undoubtedly the greater either way.
They proceeded with their routine until a body gave the collector pause, It was that an older, somewhat overweight man, enough so that he had a paunch when many were starving. From the condition of his clothes and his weight, he might have been one of those able to afford a proper burial.
“Are you sure this one is one of ours?” The corpse collector asked. His words were heavy to his tongue, pronounced with a long pause as he caught his breath.
“Which one?” the watcher inquired, his voice relaxed, almost jovial. “Oh, that one? He was a scribe or something with no heirs. The higher ups are probably too busy dividing up his stuff to care and left us scum to bury his body.”
The collector checked again for signs and found none. “It does not look like the plague got him.”
“Hence why I think they might be so eager to claim what they can. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a hobby like some here do of playing investigator but it looks like he died in his sleep. No blood or vomit, well at least when he first got here so it had to have been better than how everyone else here went. Makes me kind of jealous.”
“You’re still standing,” the corpse collector reminded. Every word he used was like a spent breath. He felt his throat crave air. “I think he would be jealous of you.”
“Good point,” the watcher agreed. “I am in no rush to join him. It’s just not everyone gets to grow old and he got to leave peacefully. That is how I want to go, quietly in bed.”
“I wanted to die while laboring before my body had a chance to grow weak,” the corpse collector remembered somberly.
“”Wanted,” huh? What do you want now?”
“I want to grow old. I want to be there to see my children’s future.”
“They got a bright future.” The watcher gestured to everything around them. “Brighter than this at least. I don’t see things getting much darker. Just make sure they do not get caught by the watchmen.”
A smile formed behind the corpse collector’s mask at the convict’s advice. He would rather hope the law found no reason to judge them at all but it was better to simply avoid the attention of enforcers of justice. They both met enough imprisoned souls to know judgement as delivered by human hands was a matter of luck, sometimes the guilty were found and if not then the innocent were sometimes caught. It was similar to plague now that he thought about it except the plague truly was fair.
They resumed their work uninterrupted until the collector heard a clink. The sound was oddly clear to him, while everything else was muffled, it rang out distinctly.
He looked down and beneath the edge of the cart laid an angular shape. The thing had been dirtied from its drop or already had been that way, however a multicolored shine broke through the muck.
He picked it up and after scratching some of the dirt off with his glove revealed it to be some kind of crystal like quartz that easily fit in his palm. It was rainbow colored and changed with the light, straining his eyes. He could not tell if it was a prism or some half crushed sphere.
“That’s a fancy bauble,” the watcher noted from the entryway, bringing the collector’s attention back to the wider world.
The collector said nothing at first, looking to the bodies nearest to the edge, searching for who it came from. The old scribe came to mind but he would have expected the watcher to have searched the man’s pockets
“You want it?” the collector asked, holding it out.
“Yes, but the taskmaster’s got his eye on me. If he finds something on me, I’m due for a lashing.”
It likely did belong to the scribe if the watcher was not in the situation to scavenge. If there was no family for it to be passed to, it seemed fair enough to take it. If the collector discovered it had belonged to another of the unfortunates, he would have asked the watcher to pass it to whoever brought the body.
“You have a stash, right? Tell me where it is and I can hide it in there,” the collector offered.
It was no secret that the prisoners were hiding ill gotten goods in secret caches. Once they were free, they could retrieve the objects.
The convict smiled widely. “I trust you and all but you ain’t a sneak. If someone sees you lurking around off your route, they might have an idea to look. How about you use it to buy your family a good meal?”
The collector hesitated. “A good idea,” he admitted slowly.
“I am full of those,” the watcher boasted.
“Why are you in chains, then?”
“Because the law did not like those ideas.”
The corpse collector let out a short laugh but that laughed turned to a series of rasping coughs. He pressed his hands over his mouth by reflex. He held back the worst of it but there was little mistaking what transpired.
“You alright?” the watcher asked as he stepped to the end of his chain. The collector said nothing as the watcher examined him. "Your eyes are looking pretty red there," the watcher said it calmly but they both knew what his observation meant.
The collector retracted his hands and grimaced as he looked at the crystal. He let it touch his mask, there was no good in offering it then. “I better go,” the collector commented as he placed the object in his pocket and took hold of his cart.
“See you later,” the watcher replied. He said it as a promise as if to urge him to live.
The corpse collector met his gaze. “Sorry, but I won’t be seeing you anymore.”
The watcher shook his head and frowned, trying to smile but failing to. “I will tell the others you sent your regards.”
“Thank you,” the collector tried to say aloud but it came as a whisper before he turned to his head to continue his route.
The collector’s journey took him outside the walls of the city where he reached the final destination of so many, a pit. He emptied his cart into it.
They threw in one day’s worth of bodies and at the end of the day put a thin layer of dirt on them to dissuade scavengers and then piled on a new day's departed over that and repeated the cycle until a new pit needed to be dug. There was always digging.
He pushed his cart aside and took a seat, his legs dangling just over the dead. He removed his mask, the dried flower petals wet and clumped together with mucus, sweat, and spital fell to the ground rather than be picked up by the wind.
He wiped his nose with a rag and blew deeply into it, giving him some time before it dripped again. He coughed plenty but he barely sneezed now. Lack of sneezing but the rattling cough was a bad sign according to the physicians he had encountered. Everything that was not coming out his nose was trickling down his throat, filling his lungs. It appeared the way the sickness intended to take him was through drowning.
He was not sure which way he wanted to go but choking or drowning both seemed unpleasant. He was going to be leaving this world soon, every breath was painful and he had nothing left to do but he hoped to last at least till nightfall. Even if the sickness did not take him then, exposure would. The darkness would hide the sight of the bodies and his last vision could be of the same stars he grew up under. The way they returned again and again with each season without fail reminded him that his soul would continue as well.
He wondered though if he would even be able to see the stars. His vision might have become too hazy. He could imagine them if he had to.
He began removing his gloves. He would not need them anymore. He let them fall into the pit. With a faint sigh of relief, he flexed his freed hands, no longer trapped with his own sweat.
He wiped his clammy hands over his pants. As he did so, he felt the crystal in his pocket. He retrieved the object and out of habit, cleaned it on his shirt. It was dangerous but maybe he could leave it behind as thanks for the collector that would come to push him in. If he could write, he would ask that it be donated to the church after it had been cleansed as a final offering.
He owed the local church or at least the priest that once dwelt there so much. During the priest's funeral, it was made clear the man spent his final moments turning his last words into a sermon. His last words were “Having one’s faith tested is a reward in itself.” The corpse collector was not at his deathbed but knew for himself from what he was experiencing now that every word would have been a labor.
He did not understand it then but he understood it now. To endure an ordeal would leave one knowing how faithful one was. Dying without hardship would leave one uncertain of that truth, words were weak and meant little in the face of action.
That was how he wanted to die, making his death useful but he had nothing to offer. The best he could do was ensure he did not trouble anyone. That in itself at least protected some souls from encountering his sickness.
The object seemed to glow from some light within itself. It did not appear to be anything natural or wrought by human hands. He thought maybe a fairy could have made it for its multicolored glimmer. It may have just been his eyes though.
As the thing was unveiled to him, the glow brightened and focused into points as if looking at the flames of a candle. He could see the light clearly in spite of his eyes, beacons of color surrounded by a grey world.
The light formed tiny letters. They were not of the few scripts he might have seen merchants use yet he knew they were letters. He could not read yet he understood their meaning. They wanted to be read so they guided him.
Mesmerized, he said what was so clearly spelled out for him, “Let it be.”
Acrid blue smoke emanated from the object. The collector began to cough and dropped it into the pit. The smoke spiraled around him for a moment as it lingered then suddenly left as quickly as it came.
“Witchcraft,” he gasped, as he covered his heart, worrying his soul might somehow be stolen away.
As soon as his coughing began to cease, he prayed, begging for forgiveness. He did not mean to jeopardize his soul on his very last day. He crawled away from the pit and prayed facing opposite of it so he was not bowing to a pile of corpses.
As he gathered his thoughts to comprehend his sin, he began to calm. He had to have imagined that. For a moment, he must have had what people called a nightmare. He had several hallucinations and delusions in the last few days, moments when he forgot where he was or what he was doing and almost returned home. He never dreamed before but his imagination was running wild even while awake.
Now he had to be imagining rustling ahead of him, towards the road. No one was entering and leaving the city except for those like him. Maybe he was not hallucinating, it could be some scavenging beast coming early to feed.
He looked ahead, beyond the brush and noticed someone, a faint silhouette. "Best you do not go that way," he advised, trying to shout rather than yell.
"Am I not welcome there?" A lady’s voice replied.
Her accent was unfamiliar to him, if anything it felt he was the one unfamiliar with his native tongue. She enunciated everything perfectly, too perfectly to be a local. Within the city itself, one could even guess which district another was from by their choice of words but she was an outsider beyond that limit.
He covered his mouth to cough. "You do not want to be welcomed there," he warned, stopping to cover a cough before gesturing to the mass grave behind him. "Not unless you want to join us here."
The person came closer and stepped beyond the brush. Even if she might not see what rested beyond the lips of the pit, she should be able to smell it. "Plague?" she assessed.
He could not guess what nation she could have been from, her tan complexion reminded him of merchants from lands to the south. However, she was taller than those he had met, maybe a bit above six feet tall. Then again, his vision was blurry so he could not trust his eyes. His fevered mind was reminded of smoke by the haze of her dark hair and skin when his eyes lost focus.
"Indeed," he confirmed. "You should have encountered the plague walls the surrounding towns built on the roads."
“I came across no such obstacles along the route I took.”
That was strange. She must have avoided the roads.
She stepped forward.
“Do not get any closer, stranger,” he warned. “I’m sick.”
She smiled kindly. “I know.”
“Then you should leave.”
“Even if I did leave this very moment, can you promise me I am safer in the city that so recently provided enough bodies to fill that pit behind you?” she asked, as she drew closer.
“I would think,” he coughed. “You would safer.”
“Allow me to at least stay here for a while. It is the least I can do to thank someone who saw fit to warn a stranger. May I ask what you are doing here?”
“I am waiting to die,” he answered matter of factly,
She was very close now. She crouched to examine his condition. “Then let me be a witness. You indeed do not seem long for this world.”
There was something disturbing about her insistence but he lacked the energy to resist. With a grunt, he stood and walked to his cart. “Let me put on my mask, spare you the bad humors.”
He held back a sneeze as he refilled his mask with a new stock of dried flowers and herbs from the cart. As soon as he put it on, he released the fit of coughs he held at bay.
“Is such…” he stopped himself as he tried to come up with a word. He settled for a word he knew was not right. “Hospitality normal where you are from. You’re not a friend, family, or providing my last rites. You do not have to be here.”
“Where do you think I’m from? I would like to think this is something any human would do for another.” There was a genuine nicety to her words.
“I only know you are not from the city. The only faces I don’t know are perhaps the nobles and their friends.”
“I am no noble,” she reassured him as she closed the distance. “Not in your city or anywhere else.”
He had heard enough of nobles in their castles to know he wanted nothing to do with them. Yet those people enforced their laws so he lived under what they dictated as just.
Rain and famine struck the wicked and righteous alike. It was not as if the divine was waiting to strike someone down if they made the wrong move, he would know. The idea of an aloof deity happened to be his idea of benevolence compared to an overseer dictating one's every move. The priest seemed a decent man while the corpse collector knew himself to not be without sin yet the corpse collector only now caught the attention of the plague.
“You look tired,” she informed him. “Please relax.”
She was right. He was tired. He did not want to die standing but he wanted to be at least away from the cart so he returned close to his old perch at the mouth of the pit but faced away from it towards her. She seemed to take that as an invitation to join him and sat a small distance across from him.
“If I cough, you might contract my sickness.”
“Then do not cough towards me. Better yet,” she instructed before she took a spot beside him. “Keep facing forward and I should be safe.”
“Why are you heading towards the city?” he asked.
“I might have visited it recently if I am not mistaken. Not unless it is being visited by a new plague.”
“This plague is recent but we have not had a bad one like this in many years so…” he began to do the math in his head but the numbers were slipping.
“Oh, then I must have visited earlier during this outbreak.”
“That would mean…” he considered before changing the subject. “What do you do that makes you leave and return with such… I don’t know. What makes you come and go so much?”
“I give people what they want,” she answered in an almost singsong manner.
“Oh, you are a merchant.”
That made sense. As a merchant she could have left the city for the coast and returned without fully noticing the progress of the plague.
“I am more than a merchant,” she stated a bit more coldly. “I grant wishes.”
The collector blanched, not sure if it was some euphemism or he was speaking with someone who was mad. Maybe there was a career out there similar to a merchant, like a problem solver. He heard of ladies of the night being called similar things but that did not seem right.
“Please humor me,” she requested. “Imagine I was someone capable of magic and I could grant any one wish.”
“Just one wish?” he asked sardonically.
She did not seem to appreciate his sarcasm. “You would want more? There used to be a time when I would grant five but that was long, long ago. I only have it in me for one, just one, but it can be any one wish.” She seemed almost sad yet her declaration was so confident and adamant. “You could ask for anything. Anything at all.”
It hurt to breathe. Every gasp of air was laborious. The extra effort forced him to be all the more careful with his words because each was precious for they could be his last.
Some part of him wanted to answer, “To not spend my final moments discussing this,” but as strange as the subject was, he appreciated the company. It was better than silence.
“I guess I would ask for a cup of water to soothe my throat.”
“Do try to treat this with earnesty,” she responded kindly yet sternly.
“It is difficult.” He wanted to laugh at the scale of it all but at the same time her confidence left him halfway convinced she was speaking the truth. She did not seem like a lunatic. “What you are describing is something only the Creator can do.”
“You say “can.” Does the Creator actually do anything for you in spite of the fact it can? You are ill. Undoubtedly you would have already prayed for restoration but it appears that your Creator has not graced you with a miracle.”
The conversation turned uncomfortable. “He knows better than I…” he started. “And... Give me a moment…”
He felt almost thankful for the excuse. He wanted to be angry but she had only ever been gracious to him. He felt something leaking from his nose and pulled down his mask to blow into his rag before it became a violent sneeze. His mind went blank as if he excised his own thoughts in the process.
He felt dizzy and straightened his head to regain his bearings. “Sorry, what was I saying?” he asked.
“That the Creator knows better than you,” she reminded him. Her smile seemed ready to snap like a trap.
“Oh yes, I do not remember where I was going with that.”
“Answer me this then. What is the point of a god if it does not give you what you want?"
It was strange. He did not feel any animosity directed towards him. It was as if she had a personal grievance against his creed. All the times he had altercations of religious nature, it was in regards to doomsayers accusing him of not being faithful enough or his neighbors complaining that he was too zealous.
"What is the point of a world where you are given everything you want?" He coughed and realized he answered her question with another question so he continued after he caught his breath. He thought about her claims to grant wishes and used that as his rampart. "What would we be living for if just a few words were enough to solve our problems? It would be a world of just priests and wordsmiths, no builders, no farmers, no toil. That would be hell.
"Hell?" The word seemed foreign to her.
“You don’t know what hell is?” he asked. It seemed like such a common concept that he barely remembered clerics even bothering to describe the place, just how one got there. It took him a moment to even define it for himself. “It is the place where all evil things go.”
"Oh, yes, that. You used it in such a way, I failed to understand what you meant."
That was fair enough. He had nothing to say against that. Most others would think he was speaking of paradise.
"You have a strange view of hell,” she continued the thought. "I imagine there would be less people afraid of the hereafter if that was what they thought hell was but you spoke of the Abyss. The Abyss is nothing like that."
"From the way you spoke, I worried you might have been without creed,” the man professed with relief.
"The Abyss is real,” she gravely informed him. “Real enough. If you believe evil to be real, there has to be a place where it gathers. One could even claim this place is the Abyss or hell as you put it.”
He had to confess that the days when the plague was at its peak, the collector would not be able to differentiate his city from everyone else’s view of hell. He would have had to guess which one was his reality based on which had less fire.
He was not entirely sure if her idea of the Abyss was the same as his idea of hell. Did she think evil simply gathered in the Abyss unlike how he believed there is retribution in his vision of the afterlife?
“Good and evil. It would be so much simpler if you simply made multiple gods like you used to. That way you could blame all this on an evil deity and keep worshipping your god without having to justify why it is you make offerings to the very one that torments you.
He wanted to say he called such things demons but to put such things in equal station with the divine would be blasphemy. In a way, the infernal could be considered something like an evil deity. He was no theologian so he could not decide where the line was drawn.
If he was completely honest with himself, he wondered if there even were demons. He himself did many rotten things and thinking back there had been no black cherub on his shoulder guiding his actions. People did not need demons to be evil and the plague carried itself along without regard for sinner or saint, likely unguided by any imps.
“I would tell you to visit the church I went to. The priest there was willing to speak outside of services and would likely be willing to talk to you“- He wheezed as he took several long breathes. His own breathing was becoming an ever present noise in the background- “about such matters. He even helped with providing education.”
“That was rather kind of your priest. Clerics have it best when they keep their congregation in the dark so the people might flock to the faintest speck of light and hope. That applies to all religions, both old and new. What happened to him?”
The collector inhaled painfully. “He died.”
“The plague…” the collector answered sadly.
“Did he pray to be cured?”
“Do you believe your god heard that man’s prayers?” her inquiry continued.
“I already made my assumption but confirm this for me. Have you prayed to be cured?”
“Have you been cured?”
He let out a wheeze and that alone should have been sufficient. He rubbed his chest, trying to massage his lungs. “No.”
There were many contradictory teachings. Faith was supposed to be enough to be healed but demanding a miracle was not faith.
It felt unfair that those in earlier times that had direct encounters with the divine were afforded miracles when it seemed that those in his days that had no such blessings were the more faithful. As he had to be reminded, all those that encountered the one he worshipped still died. Never was one freed from mortality except as a curse if more apocryphal tales were true.
“Is your god made of stone?” she inquired.
“What makes you ask that?” How she came to that conclusion was beyond him. He had to ask before he could answer.
“You say he listens but he does nothing. Either he has a heart of stone or was never real to begin with. If he does not act, how can you know he is real?”
“He answers,” the collector insisted without an example. He breathed so heavily that he forgot he could not do so through his nose anymore.
“How? You just said he does not give you what you want. If you asked for water and was rewarded with fire, how would you be able to distinguish divine intervention from coincidence? Maybe if your prayers were answered but you said they were not.”
“Because he already gave me what I needed most. Quantity does not mean joy…” He held out a hand as he gasped. “Give me a moment I am not done.”
“Take your time. These are your last moments. Spend them as you please. We can even abandon this conversation entirely.”
“This needs to be said. I have seen enough people prepare for the grave to know a beggar can have more to look fondly back on and be satisfied than an official. What we need and what I crave most now is peace.”
She eyed him doubtfully. “And you have peace?”
“If what you say is true- If you believe what you just said is true then there is little words can do to change your mind. And I never came here to change your mind. I apologize if I appeared hostile to your very way of thinking. Can we put matters of religion aside? I would like to grant a wish of yours.” She gestured as if offering a cup. “Think of this as a gift, a reward for your efforts throughout life.”
“I will try.” He could promise no less. Even if he put their differences in dogma aside, he still would not consider matters that obviously went against his god’s will, especially now that he was so close to becoming acquainted with the beyond.
“Imagine if you could have anything, anything at all. The love of one you desire, death to your enemies, even the whole world in the palm of your hand,” she described.
“I am afraid I can not live long enough to appreciate any treasure that might be offered,” he replied politely. He expressed every word slowly and meticulously to minimize the stress he put on his lungs.
“Then how about immortality? Imagine eternal youth, you would never grow old or sick.”
“Are we still imagining or is such a thing possible? I did not hear you mention I would never hunger.” He stopped to gasp like a diver returning to break through the water’s surface. “I would still need to feed myself. I would still need to labor for such niceties forever. I'd rather get grey hairs and have my sons nurse me on my deathbed in my final days than continue what I do with no hope of respite.”
“Assume that anything is possible. You see yourself still laboring even if you lived beyond a century? Surely, you would find better opportunities in time.”
“Even the Redeemer labored,” he replied.
“Did he?” she seemed to quietly mutter and consider before seemingly ignoring his response. “But if you are so concerned, you can be granted the body of a god, hungerless and a stranger to pain.”
“I would still have to pass.”
“I doubt the Redeemer, just as he is, would overlook such blasphemy. Even he died. Why should one person evade death and be rewarded for his cowardice? Besides, what would have left to do if I had no hardship?”
His world darkened. He could only see what was immediately in front of him. Some part of him thought he was looking through the mouth of a beast and the creature’s jaws were closing.
“I should have guessed. How can such an odd man still be so boring?” she began, growing frustrated. “Excuses, excuses are all I hear. You are but a human, even if a deity labored, you should still possess at least a grain of expectation. You worked and you are happy being rewarded with nothing?”
“I had a family,” he answered. “They will hopefully carry on in the home I secured with bellies filled with food I bought. That is reward enough.”
His eyelids grew heavy and she noticed. “Breathe,” she reminded him. “Do not say anymore for a moment and simply breathe.”
He followed her advice and the jaws of the beast seemed to open slightly. It was still there though, waiting or relishing his taste.
She went into quiet thought for a while as she let him be. “How is this? You want nothing because you are about to die yet you wish not for life eternal. What if you were simply cured at this moment and allowed to live out the rest of your life as if you were never stricken with this disease. You could return and make sure they indeed carry on.”
That made him doubt. There seemed to be nothing wrong with the idea. It would be the same as him visiting a physician that somehow discovered the cure.
“If there was no price, I would say yes,” he professed.
He hesitated. Nothing came without a price.
“Then I would accept it as a miracle,” he slowly acknowledged before a better option came to mind. “But wait… if I could be saved, does that mean I could request everyone else be saved as well?”
“In order to grant that miracle for others, you would have to discard the opportunity to wish that miracle upon yourself. You can only pick one or the other.”
“You said I could wish for anything,” he recalled.
“You could wish for any one thing,” she restated.
There seemed to be some hint of dishonesty to her words but she was the one making the offer. Who was he to argue when the alternative was nothing?
He was illiterate. He never read or wrote a word in his life nor did he find that he wanted to except perhaps to read holy dogma with his own eyes rather than simply have it placed in his head by others. He could not study scripture for himself so he listened to every word his pastor had to share, doing his best to memorize every lesson. Any words he might have learned along the way was happenstance, details he gleaned the meanings of through context and might or might not have used correctly. Not that it mattered. Wordplay was a hobby reserved for nobles and charlatans.
He groaned as he rubbed his head in thought. He was no longer thinking of this as a mere hypothetical something very real, his last chance to escape this fate he was tied to.
“If I chose myself, can I have my family protected? Why walk away from here to return to a plagued home?”
“You could perhaps extend your own miracle to protect your friends and family,” she postulated. “They are close enough to you to be considered a part of your life. If you wished for a healthy life, I could see to that.”
“But if I wished for everyone else to be cured, my family would be counted in that number, right?” he dared to hope,
“Correct…” She seemed to sense where his heart was leading him. “You would be the only one exempt.”
"Then if it is possible," the man declared. "I wish for that to happen."
"Face me," she instructed.
"I will make you ill,” he protested.
"You are asking for all those sick with your disease to be cured. If I somehow became ill, I will be among those cured as well."
He turned his head and she pointed to his face. He could see nothing except her finger, the rest was just a shadow. "Are you satisfied dying here in this place, knowing there is a finer alternative?" she asked. "Would you not prefer drifting to sleep in your own bed, surrounded by your family and loved ones?"
"If it would give my death meaning, yes. If it is the divine's will that all goes well then it shall, if not, then it shall not come to pass."
"It is not the divine granting this but me."
"What if the divine intended for me to meet you?" he entertained the thought.
"If your god is so intent to stay uninvolved and work through others, what did he die for?”
“Your Redeemer died, did he not? Why did your god choose to suffer if he refuses to provide aid himself?” she specified.
He felt his body growing light. The jaws were closing. These could be the final words he ever said.
He owed her an explanation. Why? There were many possible explanations but none came to mind. The answer he always resorted to was that letting everything happen as it did was as close to justice as the world allowed.
He began to talk but it was to himself. “He felt this fear and pain as well,” he realized before finally looking at her. “Thank you… for reminding me. Thank you so much.”
He wanted to shout but his voice was weak. Her face was all he could still see, an expression of surprise from her, not expecting gratitude or that answer.