Reluctantly, Death steps through the trellis besieged with trumpet vine, orange and red flowers bursting out like a sunrise. Party guests chatter and laugh, and nimble waiters serve trays of finger sandwiches in the shapes of skulls.
Death winces and wills himself not to turn around and exit, post-haste. Every year this affair descends deeper into idiocy. But like it or not, Death’s a card-carrying member of the Archetypal Society, and for this particular garden party, he’s the keynote speaker.
Here on the outskirts of Atlanta, Mother Earth volunteered one of her favorite gardens for the party. Death loathes Atlanta: sprawling carbon copies of hotels and shopping centers and houses. Uniformity seems to comfort people, but it makes Death want to, as they say, off himself. At least now he’s out of the city.
Death scans the already crowded scene, full of goddesses and gods, archetypes major and minor, aspirants, and others Death can’t quite account for—David Hasselhoff, Barbara Streisand, Jimmy Carter.
Through the mob, Birth emerges smiling and rushing, a bit too quickly, Death thinks, towards him. If Mother Earth hadn’t been called suddenly underground to address an earthquake situation, she’d be carrying Birth around. Birth should have some supervision, Death thinks.
Birth wipes some of the glossy sheen off of her ruddy cheeks. “Deaf!” she says breathlessly and claps her hands.
Death grins, feeling the lack of skin in his gaunt smile. Everyone’s always so thrilled to see Birth, but she just makes Death feel a little ill in the hollow space between his ribcage and pelvic bones. “You look like you’ve just arrived yourself,” he says.
Birth giggles. What a baby.
Just to make sure it’s there, Death fingers the folded-up page of loose-leaf paper in his cape pocket. He checked ten times this morning before he left his cave. But now, seeing the crowd and, in the distance, the small platform with microphone and podium dressed in magnolia blossoms, Death needs reassurance that he didn’t forget his notes. Death hasn’t liked being around himself for years now, so he can’t imagine why the Garden Party Planning Committee thought anyone would want to listen to him speak for twenty minutes.
Birth’s lips sink into a pout as she glances toward the chocolate fountain.
A young male in low-hanging jeans takes a puff of his cigarette and blows smoke rings into the cascading confection.
“Oh, no. Youf!” Birth yells.
Death suppresses a smirk; that Youth’s a real rabble-rouser. Death wonders how long until a couch is aflame by the dumpster. “Jesus,” Death says, shaking his head. He must be responsible for this invitation. Everyone’s welcome. Blah blah blah. Things haven’t been right between Death and Jesus since the whole resurrection incident, but if Jesus is to thank for this little excitement, Death would have to offer reluctant kudos.
“Listen,” he says, patting Birth on the arm, “Youth loves me. I’ll keep an eye on him, and if he misbehaves . . . ”
Birth hiccups and blinks, and the crying stops. Her head lolls to one side, and she reaches up to steady it. “Watch Kali, too?”
Death perks up at the mention of the Goddess of Destruction and has the sense of tiny wings fluttering in his ribcage. “Kali’s coming?” Now that might darken up this day after all.
Birth nods and frowns. Kali’s never been particularly good with babies. Bless her.
Death hopes Birth doesn’t notice the quiver in ing his jaw. It’s not becoming for Death to act like some schoolboy. He glances at the sky for hints of thunderclouds or dark patches. All clear blue. Kali must not be here. She might not even show up at all. The fluttering subsides into the emptiness Death knows too well.
Death used to know fullness. He used to love himself, loved the halcyon days when people put gold coins under corpse tongues. He even enjoyed free ferry rides from time to time, and that darling little pooch always seemed three times happier than anyone else to see him at trip’s end. He’d step off of the boat, laughing amidst crazed barking. “What’s the good word, Cerberus? Want some bacon?”
Even after that, people used to welcome Death into their homes, or at least let him in. Grandma’s body all decked out in the living room and Death just around the corner, right in the mix of cinnamon buns and overcooked casseroles and relatives nobody recognized, or wanted to. Ah, the good old days.
One of the first tribes of humans used to say that people grew lines on their faces to make a clear map for Death to find them one day. They were correct. Now people smear their faces with muddy masks and even inject themselves with botulism, a smooth disguise so Death can’t find them. These days anyone comes within reach of him, and that poor soul gets carted off to a rest home—what exactly rest has to do with those places, Death’s sure he doesn’t know. Except for the mad; sometimes they run to Death before anyone can stop them.
Just two weeks ago, Death hovered near a suicide in the hushed two a.m. darkness of a Düsseldorf April. The desperate young man—twenty-two, thin with a hook nose and forest-green eyes, hot-off-the-presses B.A. in business, framed and sitting on his kitchen table—yelled, “What’s the point of living?” right before he jumped off of the Oberkasseler Bridge.
Still, today, Death longs for an answer, but he hasn’t had the courage to ask anyone not in freefall. Watching Birth drool shamelessly down her chin, he can’t imagine asking any present company. Besides, Death is the speaker—he’s supposed to have the answers. An irony that makes giving a speech here today seem as ridiculous as the video games that glorify him and the life-support machines resisting him at every turn.
Death doesn’t like the people who like Death or the people who don’t. If he didn’t have that unrelenting sense of responsibility, that feeling that he just has to go, he wouldn’t have even come today.
Except if he was really honest, Death felt buoyed by the invitation, thought for a second that it might actually be some kind of second chance. How naïve.
Death looks past Birth, past the crowd. In the back corner, to the left of the platform, Dionysus stands behind a tall bar and raises a hand to salute Death. Even from twenty feet away, Death can see the bloodshot eyes and veiny nose.
Birth dashes to greet a new guest: The Orphan, looking lost and like she needs a new outfit. Birth seems to love getting things going at a party, but halfway through she’s always sucking her thumb, curled up asleep on someone, doesn’t matter who. Maybe it’s The Orphan’s lucky day, a kind of kismet. Always helpful to feel needed and wanted. At least so Death has heard.
Death takes long quick strides away from the children and straight to the bar. “Greetings barkeep, what say you to a gin martini for a loyal customer?”
“Thank a god,” Dionysus says. “Hardly anyone’s been over here yet. I mean, not that I mind. I’ve been entertaining myself.”
Behind Dionysus, Death notices a cloth-covered folding table, half-empty bottle of Jameson on top and stretching out
from underneath, a pair of long slender legs tapering into lovely pedicured feet, half in red stilettos with the heels broken off.
“Maenads.” Dionysus shrugs, glances back at the legs and then winks at Death. “So bro, I’ve been waiting for you. They told me we’d have to have an open bar for the guest of honor.
“Finally, a Death party.” The voice comes from Youth, now sidling up to Death. Youth draws out his vowels, speaks in a breathy monotone. “People don’t do that enough.”
“Die?” Death asks.
Over glazed eyes, Youth blinks slowly, like a crocodile. “Celebrate Death.”
“But of course,” Death says. “I’m a perfect delight. So how did you manage an invitation?”
“Good question.” Dionysus fills a shaker with ice and pours in two healthy shots of Tanqueray and some olive juice. He casts a sideways glance at Youth. “I thought you got suspended from these things.”
Youth holds up both palms. “No streaking, no pyrotechnics. I’m a reformed dude,” he says. “And Jesus invited me.”
“Him.” Death bites at a long nail on his bony index finger.
“Listen.” Youth leans close to Death. “I’ve got some really good stuff if you want to meet me in twenty minutes in the tool shed. Calm you down before your speech.”
“I shall be there with all alacrity,” Death says.
Youth raises a hand for an unrequited high five from Death and then wanders off.
Dionysus pours the martini into a chilled glass and hands it to death. “You’re not going, are you?”
“Not, as they say, on your life,” Death says. “Or perhaps. Your liver can only take so much.”
“No worries. This liver is immortal.” Dionysus wipes the counter with a white towel. He covers his mouth with the back of his hand and belches. “And I’ve got a job to do.”
“Don’t we all?” Death raises his glass to Dionysus.
Keeping track of the sky and hoping to avoid other party-goers, Death meanders along the perimeter of the garden and a row of tall boxwood bushes. Above, all steady blue, no clouds, no hint of destruction. Or her. Pity.
Death sees only signs of life; everyone loves that rubbish. People even love signs of afterlife. They practically drool over those exasperating ghosts who refuse to go to their final rest—that’s why psychics are crawling out of the woodwork like fresh-hatched termites.
Death kicks a small round grey rock and watches it roll to a stop on the dirt path.
Hardly anyone seems to appreciate the split, the place between. That’s what Death is: The Middle Child of Existence. Pathetic.
Death hears giggling, followed by Aphrodite and some gentleman he doesn’t recognize tumbling out of the shrubs just ahead. Aphrodite has him by his collar, and even Death has to admit she looks ravishing—sun-kissed skin, auburn curls down to her thighs, too many curves to count, draped in a blue silk that ripples like the ocean itself—and her conquest turns to look at Death. Imbecile.
Death watches lust switch to fear as fast as a Barry Manilow wardrobe change. Secretly, Death’s favorite artist—“Weekend in New England” gets him every time.
“Oops,” the gentleman says. “Uh, sorry.”
“Not at all,” Death says. “Anything to add intrigue to the gathering, yes?”
“Oh, hello,” Aphrodite says icily, raising a thin eyebrow at Death, like he’s worn the wrong thing, like he is the wrong thing. “We didn’t mean to block your—path.” Abruptly she steers herself and her conquest away from Death and toward a waiter proffering stuffed mushrooms. She shudders as though trying to shed any lingering Death germs.
Good Hades, I’m not contagious. Death whirls around and almost walks into The Lover, that six-foot, fake-baked, shirtless reprobate in tight Levis, also stepping out of the bushes.
The Lover shakes his head and glares with the same glare Death just got from the goddess of love, the one that says, “Why do you have to ruin everything?”
Death’s bones rattle. “I beg your pardon, sir. I assure you, I’m not here on business.” Not yet, in any event.
“Whatever.” The Lover adjusts the crotch of his jeans and starts toward Aphrodite and her friend, now sitting on a patch of grass and feeding each other juicy mushrooms. “Hey,” The Lover calls out, “you guys want some company? I’ve got my video camera. It’ll be hot.”
Death resists the urge to kick The Lover in the back pocket of his taut denims and instead examines the bone structures of other guests. Bones reassure Death. Otherwise, these beings are far too colorful and fleshy. Not like him—ten feet tall, long black cape. Once, Youth called him “one bony mother-fucker.” Death enjoyed that.
The Ruler waves to him and then to someone else on the other side of the party. Now The Ruler, she’s a fetching one. Muscles strong over her skeleton, she glows with wellness. Oh, and she’s not sporting the toga anymore. Traded it in for overalls evenly striped with the Libra symbol. A little obvious. Death glances down at slender finger bones creeping out of his cape sleeve. Well, he supposes, those in glass houses . . .
Maybe for The Martyr’s Autumn Ball, he’ll try something in a chocolate brown, something without a hood even.
If he’s invited. But he probably won’t be. So why bother? So many of this assemblage seem to have jumped on the human bandwagon: life is fashionable; Death is passé. Overdone. Outdated.
“Death!” A jubilant voice accompanies a familiar healing pat on the back that makes flesh rise up over Death’s spine.
Death wrenches himself away from the hand. “Mind your pleasantries, please,” Death says, turning around to see, as he expected, one happy son of a god. “New life isn’t for everyone.”
Jesus smiles, holding up his guilty healing palms. “Sorry! That’s how I roll—that’s what the kids say, right? No harm intended.” Jesus sniffs at Death. “Don’t worry. I can smell the rot already. All bones in no time.”
“No harm done.” Death shakes off the chunk of half-grown flesh down through his cape to the ground and then steps to the side.
Jesus. Same sandals and dusty feet, but new buzz cut, freshly pressed white T-shirt and Jesus’ signature piece for this century: a blue and green plaid kilt. Reclaiming the skirt for men, yet again.
Although Death would never admit it, he likes Jesus, his ease of being. Even if Jesus does get a little incensed over things like closed parties. The more the merrier. All are welcome in my Father’s house. Et cetera. Death doesn’t agree with that open-door stance. Sometimes people should be somewhere, and sometimes they shouldn’t. No need to crowd a place. Death prefers space. And quiet.
Jesus, however, looks around the busy garden and nods. “Nice group.” He turns to Death. “So, ready for your sermon?”
“Just an informal oration, but yes, I suppose.” Death forces a shrug. It could be a sermon. He’s speaking today on, of all things, “Why Death is Important to Acknowledge, Now More Than Ever.” At The Fool’s suggestion, Death asked the planning committee to change the title to “Biting It: Pay Attention,” but that got vetoed by The Orphan and The Martyr and shortly thereafter by almost unanimous vote. The Fool and The Warrior were overruled.
The way Jesus smiles at Death, full of encouragement and affirmation, just leaves Death feeling inadequate and ill-prepared.
“Will you excuse me?” Death asks. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I should review my notes.”
“Right on. Can’t wait to hear it!” Jesus goes for a handshake and Death reaches out to take it, but at the last minute Jesus pulls back. “Almost gotcha.” He laughs and walks away.
“Hilarious.” Death watches Jesus go, kilt flapping in the breeze.
Death meanders back to Dionysus and orders another drink. While he waits, he unfolds the loose-leaf sheet. The Fool sent him an email reminder that good eye contact, in addition to good jokes, are what make a speech, so Death didn’t want to write out too much. He’s just made a brief list, including:
- Surplus population elimination
- Side note: Higher salaries = more committed grave diggers
- Burial grounds—eerie AND lovely
- Troublesome acquaintances suddenly out of picture
Death sighs, and his cold breath becomes steam in the Atlanta air. Certainly it all sounds agreeable, but who cares? The Fool also mentioned that a successful performance stems from the speaker’s enthusiasm and conviction. Death feels about as enthusiastic as a finger sandwich. Maybe Death should die. Or maybe everyone should just last forever, like he has to.
Suddenly, the sky darkens a little, and a strong wind surprises Death, almost carrying off his notes.
Death looks up and smiles. “Kali,” he exhales.
Before him, the Goddess of Destruction herself, a silky oil slick of hair hanging down past her hips. Three-inch, finely sharpened silver blades for anklets. Long black toenails and fingernails, bracelets of bones halfway up her arms. Lips the color of fresh blood, tattooed spiders weaving webs across her face. And she’s wearing a gauzy yellow sundress, with a bow.
“New frock?” Death asks, raising a brow bone and steadying his voice.
Kali twirls, and the sundress skirt flares and settles. “I got dressed up for your speech,” she says without opening her mouth. Her voice echoes everywhere around, but comes from nowhere in particular. Death knows from experience that her actual voice wreaks so much havoc that she saves it for natural disasters and the like.
Death feels a tingle down his spine. “You are a vision.”
Kali grins, just slightly, and in a tiny open corner of her mouth, Death glimpses a blackness so deep that it almost sucks him in. Would that he were so fortunate.
She closes her lips, puckers them. “Maybe later, after your little talk, you and me . . .”
Death shudders. “My lady,” he says, “I fear you’d eat me alive.” As soon as he says it, Death realizes that doesn’t actually sound so unpleasant.
“Maybe next time.” She flips her long black hair, and her tiny monkey skull earrings swing back and forth. “Better practice those jokes, I guess. So break a leg. Or both.” She twirls one last time and curtsies to Death. With head held high, she sashays off past a row of Carefree Delight rose bushes.
A crowd has gathered near Death to watch Kali. “Scary,” Birth whispers.
Death nods. “Oh, yes.”
In the immediate wake of Kali, the vivid pink blooms of the Carefree Delights wither, and the glossy leaves wilt down into an ashy black. As Kali goes, she leaves deep scorched footprints in the dirt. Just like that.
Death lets out a low whistle.
“Rad,” Youth says. “Metal.” He raises his arm toward Kali, holds up his index and pinkie fingers, and presses his middle and ring fingers to his palm with his thumb. “Totally.”
Now Birth squirms, nervous. She wails, “Jesus!”
From the cookie table, mouth full of a big bite of an oatmeal raisin, Jesus calls back, “What’s up?”
Birth points to the roses. “Flowers die!”
Here we go again, Death thinks. Obscure the dead things.
Jesus sets down the half-eaten cookie and says, “I’m on it.” As he strolls by the bushes, the ground smoothes out. Leaves and flowers rise, and shine.
“Aw man, come on,” Youth whines. “That burnt shit was cool.”
Death feels a flash of affection for Youth. At least someone appreciates the destruction. But then Death watches Jesus at work, walking slowly and deliberately next to the roses. Jesus steps past the last bush, and Death glimpses the moment right before the gray petals unfurl into pink and the leaves perk back into green crispness.
Warmth spreads across Death’s ribcage, and he runs his hand over his smooth cranium, bones sliding slow against each other.
Click, click. Click.
“There it is,” Death says. “There it is.”
“What’s there?” Birth asks.
“I am,” Death says. That’s exactly it. In that moment he knows: he’s forgotten who he is, what he does. What he’s actually a part of, whether anyone likes it or not.
Most of the time, Death focuses on the worms, the stink of decay once life ends. But he’s forgotten about that rush of breath, sometimes just zipping out of a body. And about that void, that canyon of possibility he creates. The magical middle ground—anything can happen there.
Jesus beelines for the cookie table, Youth pockets a shot glass from the bar, and everything seems to return to business as usual. Death crinkles the paper in his hand and tosses it in the trash receptacle next to the bar. He knows exactly what he’s going to say now. What he just needed to remember.
Birth curls her fingers around Death’s index finger bone. She squeezes and looks at him with wide blue eyes. “Five minutes—you talk!”
Surprising himself, Death tickles her under the chin with his other hand.
She giggles. “Ready, set, go?”
Picking up the glass Dionysus has waiting for him on the bar, Death empties the glass. He feels the liquid dissolve into vapors down the center of him. The mist, the heavy emptiness there. Delicious.
Throwing back the hood of his cape, Death lets the spring breeze drift through his eye sockets and the sun cast light and warmth on his beautiful, vital skull.
Jen Violi is the author of Putting Makeup on Dead People, and founder of Jen Violi: The Business. As a mentor, editor, and facilitator, Jen helps writers unleash the stories they’re meant to tell. Sign up for her free monthly newsletter, brimming with writing ideas and resources for you at www.jenvioli.com.