by Matthew Reed
A corpse collector meets a stranger
|She said something and reached out as he closed his eyes. He felt her finger tap his forehead.
He opened his eyes. “How long did I sleep?” he asked as the world, while still blurred, seemed to brighten.
“You only just closed your eyes but that was long enough. Listen.”
He cupped his hand around his ear. His faded hearing could still notice a distant roar growing from the direction of the city.
“What is that?” he asked.
“That is the sound of people rising from their beds, realizing that they are still alive. That is the sound of joyous friends and family, parents that had their children returned to them and children realizing their parents are not abandoning them,” she described.
He touched his own neck. His throat hurt less than it did before. “Was I cured as well?” Was he rewarded somehow?
“No, your body has simply grown accustomed to the pain. Your breathing is still swallow.”
There seemed to be something wrong about her claim but it made sense to him. He could not even hear his own breaths, he could barely feel anything.
Bells sounded in the distance.
“Can I go back?”
“You can but everyone was merely cured, not made immune. If you return, they risk contracting it again from you,” she warned,
“Then throw me into the pit right now. Bury me deep so I take this illness with me,” he begged.
“I will not. I am under no obligation to obey the request of someone who just had his desire fulfilled. That is a simple enough task you can complete yourself.”
“I can’t. Suicide is frowned upon and even then, a corpse can’t bury itself.”
“Then die quietly and I will bury your body if that will make you happy.”
He thought that was the end of their conversation, but she then asked, “Where do you want to die?”
“You were robbed of how and when your final moments will be taken from your, surely you still want to choose where,” she observed.
“You are right. I would rather die in my own home but that is not an option,” he noted.
“There must be some place you would rather be. Anywhere but here.”
“I thought I was allowed only one request…” he recalled.
“Do not think about that. Travel is something anyone can accomplish with a boat or a reliable horse,” she told him. “Name anywhere but the moon and what lies between the stars and I will find a way.”
”...I always wanted to see the ocean. It was always so close yet I never saw it, only twenty leagues away. If I so wanted I could have walked there in my prime but I doubt even my younger self could make it in two days if that is even how much time I had left. “
“I can bring you there,” she affirmed.
“But there’s the plague walls,” he challenged.
“The plague walls did not stop me from arriving here. Do you want your last days to be spent making excuses? I can take you there in time,” she declared.
“Do you promise to still bury me? I do not expect you to know the rites but at least place me deep enough that nobody finds my bones before the worms had their fill.”
“Yes,” she agreed.
“Then please take me there.”
What transpired next was a series of blurs. They secured a boat and went downriver. They passed quiet villages, not encountering a single soul along the way. All the better, he would have asked that they avoided any other people.
Even though he could not remember the path they took or how much time passed, he swore he remained awake the entire time. If his consciousness slipped, it would be over. Though his memories were scarce, it felt as if it had been a long time. The sensation was faintly familiar to him like it was something he was always meant to experience yet never did, like breathing for the first time.
The beach was smaller than he thought. The land leading to the white waves ended at a sheer cliff like it had been cut and from the mainland. The sand was barely noticeable, sitting from the ledge all there seemed for him to see was the endless grey waters and the pure black sky rather than the shore below.
“Is it like what you imagined it would be like?” she asked.
“No, but that is not so bad.”
“Wait until morning.”
They sat alone quietly in the dark, content knowing that this was his end. He would have been satisfied if he closed his eyes the final time then and there. This had been more than he could ever ask for.
“To be honest with you entirely,” she said calmly. “You wished for something so mundane. If you had lived long enough, you would have seen how pointless your wish would have been if it was real. Plagues come and go as all things do. I must confess I would have preferred that you had chosen to heal yourself.”
He groaned as he straightened himself to ensure he was sitting upright. “You could not have done it even if I asked.”
“Why? I healed all others.”
“Because I have already been healed before we even met.”
She did not frown but her lips formed into a neutral expression while her eyes resisted the urge to roll. “I am guessing you mean spiritually because I believe you were coughing throughout our conversation. I venture to guess your god was somehow responsible.”
“You guess correctly.”
“I remind you that I granted a wish while your god remains silent. All miracles have been from me.”
“There was a true miracle today,” he remembered. “I got to speak to someone one last time. I was expecting to die alone. Would you not call that a miracle?”
“I call that coincidence,” she stated. “That a deity would deign to see us meet, how ludicrous. If your god loved you, he would have never had us meet. What is so special about you that you deserved to cross paths with me?”
“Maybe the miracle was for you, then.” He phrased it more as a statement than question. Some part of him wanted to ask what she was or what she did that was so terrible that she thought herself abhorrent to the divine but he found it did not matter.
What was the point of a world where every question was answered? There would be no mystery. Faith would have no place in a reality that was certain. But he lived in an uncertain reality, it gave him hope that there might be something rather than condemning him to a set path.
The edge of the horizon turned yellow while rest of the sky and waters gained their recognizable blue and revealed white clouds. Shortly after, the horizon and lining of clouds became pink like blood spreading through water while parts of the ocean were purple.
“Still not so bad?” she inquired as she gestured to the sight.
“It is better than I imagined,” he confessed, smiling. “Strange to say that since I am imagining this.”
“What makes you say that?”
He should have died days ago. He was at his final moments. He had his suspicions from when he could hear the bells of the city. He hoped he was wrong. If he was wrong, then a miracle really did occur.
“I have no proof that it is fake but I have no proof it is real. Thank you for this even if it is a lie,” he accepted.
“Why are you so insistent it is a lie if you have no proof?” she asked, perturbed but still smiling.
“Because I believe in the miracle of our meeting more than I believe in this world magically rid of woes. If I must place my faith in one thing today, I will believe in that. Am I wrong? This is not real, isn’t it? So, this is how it feels to dream. I am still by that pit, aren’t I?”
“You are not wrong,” she confirmed as her smile transformed into a frown. “And what a wasted dream this is for the dreamer to awake within it.”
Her expression was complex like a mask had fallen away. She seemed sad, frustrated, and maybe even afraid all at once. It felt as if those emotions were not entirely directed towards him.
“To follow me into a dream…” he struggled to not understand the situation. He seemed to accept the strangeness of everything the way a dreaming mind failed to reject all that occurred. “Are you a witch or demon?”
The facets of her expression more akin to anger slipped away to make her face one of resignation as she smiled softly. He would think she was the one that was dying. “You think too much of me to consider me something like a witch or demon. I am something far less real. I am something more akin to this very dream than a human or spirit.”
“Whatever you are. Thank you for being here in my final moments. If I was allowed another request, I would wish you well.”
She placed a hand over her chest. “You already spent your wish but I appreciate your gratitude. Unfortunately, any wish granted by me is rewarded with calamity. You are fortunate in that you will not see the consequences of your wish. As you said near the beginning I am not a friend or family. So, I will perform final rites. Be honored.”
She paused as she seemed to try to drudge memories for the proper rituals for funerals and kneeled. “I miss the days when humans worshipped themselves, you were so much more imaginative,” she bemoaned. “I could have met someone with ambition, someone who wanted to become a god… but no, I was conjured by one of the many that worshipped a god that became human.”
She tented her hands similar as if in prayer. She kneeled. “Rest well. Unlike most, someday your wish will come true. One may never acquire riches, one may never see the world in peace.” She looked in the direction of the stricken city. “But this will indeed pass.”
Rather than sink into darkness, his world faded to white.