“Will you mourn them when they are all gone?”
“I do not mourn.”
“There will be nothing left for you to do.”
“There will always be death.”
“You are the death of humans. Not of rats or pigs or what will come after the humans are gone.”
Death’s response was to tug his cloak into place with a thin hand. He could not feel the cold, but he knew it was there.
“You will mourn.”
The man standing beside Death tapped the contents of his pipe out into the dirt then felt in the pocket of his red waistcoat for a pouch of tobacco. For as long as Death had known him this man had smoked a pipe. Sometimes he smoked thin cigarettes. “For a change.” the man would say and then laugh his high, thin laugh.
“Why should I mourn? To mourn is human and I am not human.”
“You feel for them,” the man poked Death in the arm with the end of his pipe. “You’ve gotten sentimental over the centuries. Spent too much time watching them.”
“I cannot interfere.”
“You are evading me.”
“We have talked of this before.”
“Yes, and you didn’t give me an answer then either. Or the time before. Or before that. I have been asking for centuries.”
The man finally found the pouch and refilled his pipe. Death did not notice him light it but it was smoking again, held between the man’s teeth.
“That is a habit of theirs.”
The man took the pipe from between his teeth and looked it over.
“I never said I disliked everything about them.”
“You call them insignificant.”
“They are,” the pipe returned to his mouth. “Everything is, old boy. Even you.”
“But not you,” Death responded.
“Never me. Humans think of themselves as the end of the chain. The greatest thing the universe can accomplish.”
He laughed and took a puff of his pipe before continuing.
“It’s the same with them all. Put a pauper alone in a castle and he will eventually sit on the throne and call himself king.”
“Is that why you keep them alone?” Death asked.
“Not me, chap. Circumstance. I don’t make the decisions. Got to include a bit of random chance. Keeps it from getting dull.”
“They have accomplished much.”
“Accomplishment is relative. Maybe they have,” the man shrugged. “Maybe they haven’t.”
“I do not treat life with such flippancy.”
“You take it.”
“I guide it at it’s end,” Death’s words came out sharply, irritated with the man’s unwillingness to drop the subject. “You have made yourself look like one of them.”
“I chose what I like,” another shrug. “This allows me to wander among them. No one suspects anything of a handsome man in a good suit.”
Death was accustomed to the man’s smugness and paid it no heed.
“You like them because they have something you and I cannot. Brevity.”
“Brevity,” the man studied his pipe again.
“They have short lives and so many possibilities. Limits help give them purpose. It drives them and changes them. We never change because we have no need.”
“No, we don’t.”
The man turned away, but not before Death noted his annoyance.
“You walk among them but you do not pay attention. How many times have you watched them? Not as a great mass of life but as individuals?”
“Why should I?”
“Watch them fall in love, watch them suffer and then carry on, watch them discover joy, weep in regret, fight for what they believe is right. They do so much with such tiny lives. Why does that not astound you?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“They wish for immortality, some of them.”
The man had turned back, his pipe gone and a cigarette held between his fingers. Delicately handsome features were twisted in a scowl.
“More time, that’s what they think would solve all their problems. Time heals all wounds. Fools.”
“It does,” Death responded calmly. “Time and Death.”
The man smiled a thin, unamused smile.
“It doesn’t suit you, old chap, the dry humour.”
“You gave it to me. Watching millions of lives end. It is how I carry on.”
The man snorted and took a puff on his cigarette.
“Can you imagine, they think that being eternal would be wonderful. They would all be gods. That is why I do not like them. They have no forethought and no imagination beyond themselves. To be eternal is not a game for children to play.”
“You think them children?”
“They are infants!” the man dropped the cigarette and stubbed it out with his shoe. “How long have their kind crawled on the surface of this world? For no time at all!”
“They discovered kindness,” Death tugged at his cloak again and watched his companion.
The man had paused with a fresh cigarette halfway to his mouth.
“You think that matters?”
“It has always mattered,” Death looked away from his companion and, at last, at the view. A city blossoming from a river that ran through it like a snake. A city bathed in starlight and shining it’s own twinkling lights back up at the universe. “They do not all understand it, but the ones who do are a joy to speak to. Kindness and empathy are two of their greatest talents.”
“They understand one another in ways that have taken us centuries.”
“You are talking nonsense.”
“Do you remember the girl?”
The question was abrupt, perhaps deliberately, and it appeared to throw the man. His hand, still holding the cigarette, dropped to his side.
“That was a hundred years ago.”
“A moment to you. You remember her as yesterday.”
“What was she to you, ultimately?”
The man did not answer. Death knew that the man would not even speak the girl’s name. She had been young. Not on the Earth much longer than twenty years before Death had been called to her side.
“You scoff at their wish for immortality because you think they cannot understand the burden of it. She understood. In a single turn of this planet she understood all that governs us.”
The cigarette dropped to the dirt with the first.
“Nothing governs me.”
“Don’t recite me the lines. I’ve heard them all too many times. Speak honestly for once, old friend. Speak as they do, from your heart.”
“Will you mourn them?”
Death sighed at the lost cause of his argument.
“Yes. I will mourn them as they have taught me to mourn. As you mourned her.”
“I think you’d better get along, old chap. You have work to be doing tonight.”
Death did not argue. To press his friend too far was to risk a wrath unlike any other. Turning from the view of the city he walked back toward the white horse that was nibbling the grass. Before he could ride away, however, the man spoke as he watched the city.
“I steady the wheel but no one chooses the direction, old chap. I don’t watch them because I don’t need to see what I can’t change.”
“You change them every day. Imagine what you could do if you paid them more attention.”
Death then bowed his head in a gesture of respect and turned his horse, trotting into the night. Behind him he left the man in the neat grey suit and red waistcoat. The man smoking a pipe again as he watched the city lights twinkle. The man remembering the girl who had asked him, with innocence on her lips, the only question he could not answer.
“What would you do with a short life?”
The man regretted never answering her. How could he have answered?, he would reason to himself. This is what he had been from the beginning and it is what he would always be.
Time was, after all, infinite.
“Will you mourn them when they are all gone?”