CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|The Man Who Wore Death
Adrian Van Young
There once was a man who wore high khaki pants and button-up shirts with the faintest blue stripes. To say he was ugly would be to belie the fact that he was nondescript. His eyes were dull. His chin was weak. His hair was nut-brown, or jet-black, or straw-colored. His physique was lumpen. His posture was slack. His ears fit closely to his skull. In fact, the man was and he needed to be the most nondescript man among all those that breathed because he was an emissary of the force that had come to be known in this world and personified, mythically speaking, as Death.
Or rather not an emissary.
The word functionary might better explain the role this man played in relation to Death.
For the man here described, who had no proper name, was all but a cog in the bureaucracy that Death had developed to harvest the living.
If you’d happened to catch him abroad in the street in a northeastern city, let’s say, in the winter—and you wouldn’t have noticed him, ever, we’re sure, that’s just how nondescript he was—but if you had noticed him, only this once, standing in line for a movie, perhaps, and if you had happened to brush up against him, you’d have felt that his clothes were not fabric but flesh. He did not wear the clothes, he was them—a patterned complexion that coated his body.
You would wonder about him: how is he not cold, this uniquely unhandsome though not ugly man in his pouched business casual, standing so still?
How is his shoulder so soft to the touch?
How is his breath even faintly not smoking?
Where have I seen him before? you might ask.
Unless the man had come for you.
And here was the thing about Death’s functionaries.
Like any good bureaucracy—or good bureaucracy in theory—the one overseen by the force known as Death was geared for peak efficiency. For Death, you see, had grown fatigued of meting out lifelessness day after day. Not least problematic was all of the pleading, the rending of hair and the wringing of hands, the appeals to a god that made Death belly-laugh. And when the appeals petered out and they did—Death’s laugh had that effect on people—came the vacuum of cold, life-renouncing despair that descended on people before they succumbed.
Death was fatigued because Death was stretched thin across too many places and time frames at once. The prospect was untenable. Death could not perform Death’s work.
And so Death created the bureaucracy that made death enforcement a lesser ordeal, with its complex assignment of Death’s functionaries to help in Death’s enormous work. She’d birthed them from beneath Her robes, each one in his casing of unlovely clothing, each one with his features that mirrored the next if only in their incompleteness, and off the functionaries went in their radial columns of disparate and few to accomplish the work to which Death was averse. No one among them was aware of the one set behind or before him in line and in this way they marched as a senseless brigade.
A seething, dark net that enveloped the world.
Death was not a queen or an empress, per se, but a Grand Secretary who answered to no one.
Her main provision being this: Death alone could confer active death on the living.
But say that he had come for you—the man who wore death, in the northeastern city, outside of the theater, standing in line.
He would not have been wearing the high khaki pants and the button-up shirt with the faintest blue stripes; he would’ve been wearing your death yet to come.
That death—your death—would keep him warm.
You’re standing in that movie line. You’re twenty-one or twenty-two. While you’re standing there, waiting, you’re wooing your date, or you’re joking around with your two closest friends, or you’re bathing your face in the warmth of the light streaming down from the bulbs of the movie marquee, a solitary moviegoer, glad to spend two hours alone. You notice that sitting before you in line and roughly level with your chest is a woman in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank, plastic tubes snaking around to the front. The tank is emitting a thin, rhythmic breathing—in and out, and out and in. Every time the tank expels, the marquee sign appears to pulse. The wheelchair is facing the front of the line so you can’t see the face of the lady inside, but you can see the back of her uncovered head: patched in places, tawny, hunched. It is very cold out. You can see she is smoking. It fumes up around her and into the light where the haze of the sign seems to burn it away.
A feeling comes over you—brief, fragmentary.
Looking down at the sick woman’s head, you think: Soon.
Such thoughts do not stay with you long. You never see the woman’s face. Some part of you never forgets her, however: her mostly bald head and her oxygen tank; her hunched-up nape; her plastic tubes. You know that she has lung cancer. And you know it is curdling into her slowly, filling her absences, blooming like coral.
What you don’t know, at least not then, is one day you will have it too, and after a gross and prolonged struggle with it you will die like the woman you once saw in line.
Yet on the day that you do die and likely in the days before it, there will exist a part of you that does not struggle with your death, that does not plead with Death for mercy. A resignation grows in you from what had been the smallest seed.
Only now you remember the shape of her head.
Only now you remember yourself saying: Soon.
Only now you remember the feeling you felt: One day, perhaps, that will be me.
And now Death comes for you with ease. She will not be exhausted by mortal travails. In Her endless white robes She will light upon you from the place where She roams between myriad worlds and Her pale vestments will unravel around you, blinding you, eating you, wrapping you up. No one can say what lives under Death’s robes, not even Her legion and cowed functionaries, who were born into being from under their folds.
But Death is a woman. Of this, they are sure.
For otherwise, how would they be?
She is only and utterly made of Her robes, the hollows of them whipping past you. They are not black—the stuff of myth—but blindingly, pristinely white. She descends in a gale of them—shapely, totemic. She is glad for the way that you do not demur. It allows Her to gather the last of Her train and do what She is made to do.
And so we return to the man in the pants and the button-up shirt with the faintest blue stripes. For back in the northeastern city in winter, back when you were still alive, the woman in the wheelchair with the breathing apparatus is not in the crowd when the movie lets out and for an instant you accept this, assuming she went out the handicapped exit or is waiting inside for the theater to clear. You go through the doors with your date or your friends or your self, no one else, feeling calm and renewed, and you walk down the curb and off into the night.
You never even see him there, underdressed and alone in the dark and the cold. He stands parallel to the theater exit, the door swinging open to hide him, reveal him.
With his closely set ears and his hatchet-wound chin and his lank, indeterminate pateful of hair, he may not even be to you, though you’d never remark it, a flesh-and-blood person.
Here is a list of the things he remembered:
He remembered approaching an offshore man’s door in the clerical black of a policy agent and trying to pitch him the company plan that would pay out his family in case of his death, preparing the man for the moment, years later, drilling some wetlands in south Mississippi, when the rig he was working exploded and sunk due to what would be deemed a “pneumatic malfunction.”
He remembered becoming a flock of dark birds that lit on the eaves of a house in the suburbs above where a pilot of passenger jets had sat drinking coffee alone in his kitchen, prefiguring the accident which, only a year from that day, would occur when a similar flock would divert from its course and self-immolate in his airplane’s right engine, plunging the vessel into the Pacific, killing everyone on board.
He remembered manifesting as a stab of indigestion on the Fourth of July at a neighborhood picnic, doubling over a boy in a blue camper chair who had watched the finale pitched over his knees only dimly aware that, five years in the future, he would die in a hail of policemen’s gunfire, the sound of the bullets like palms and peonies, the blood spraying from him like sparks in the sky.
He remembered becoming a sonogram wave in the full uterus of a soon-to-be-mother, an erratic heartbeat that would spike and subside one month before the daughter’s birth, and signaling to her the marvelous world that lay beyond her mother’s skin she’d enter as a lifeless thing, her mother’s cord around her neck.
But he didn’t stop there. He could never seem to. The man who wore death had a curious streak and it caused him to do the most curious things. For after every harbinger, when the people he’d marked had returned to their lives, he watched them for a little while in his high khaki pants and his button-up shirt.
He watched the offshore man go back through his house and he watched him still closer as night took the swamp, resting a palm on his daughter’s forehead, drinking a beer with the fridge door still open, making love to his wife with the lights bright as day, the only lit window in all of the house.
He watched the boy leaving the holiday picnic with the blue camper chair cradled under his arm and he watched him walk home through the blued, smoky air to the split-level house where he lived with his mother, carrying with him one last firework that he had saved for just this moment, and he lit it alone in the empty, dark street, the boy crying out while pinwheeling around, his grin falling from him, reforming, refalling.
The man who wore death didn’t know why he watched. He had thought that, perhaps, in the wake of his work the people would look different to him—more blessed among creatures, more brightly themselves. Some acknowledgement, maybe, of life’s brevity in how they moved through time and space. Some hint of frightened need in them that would signal to the man who wore death who they were.
For as long as the man who wore death had been there, he had only just once seen another one like him.
He had seen her while leaving a large hospital where the man who wore death had been putting in work—where in fact he had put on the sonogram wave that broke upon the baby girl. He almost didn’t see her going in through the doorway as he was just leaving. He didn’t know her by her looks or by her smell or by her gait but because of the fact that he couldn’t have known her—because the woman was not there.
She’d been wearing a heather-gray pantsuit with pumps, her stature neither tall nor short, and her face had been one of profound incompleteness, the bones without contour, the skin undercooked. He had grown so accustomed to seeing his subjects in all of their freckled particular meat that the sight of the woman who also wore death had profoundly unnerved him—seemed almost grotesque.
They watched each other for a while, pursuing their errands in different directions.
He had never seen anyone like her again.
Now the man who wore death felt initiative stirring.
He was on a nice street in a nice neighborhood where a ten-year-old boy would be riding his bike. It was autumn outside—early autumn, and chilly. Leaves coated the street and fell down through the trees. The silly romantic aroma of woodsmoke. Life continued not without him, but in spite of the fact he had always been there.
The man stood at an intersection, just upon the sidewalk there, and was wearing, as always, the high khaki pants and the button-up shirt with the faintest blue stripes.
He’d meant to manifest that day as a brake-cable fluke in the ten-year-old’s bike, amounting to a breathless swerve in the path of a number of slow-moving cars, guaranteeing that twenty-five years from that day, sideswiped and killed by an off-duty cab, he would not exhaust Death with his sadness and terror when the thought out of nowhere came to him: Of course.
That ten-year-old was coming, now.
No longer a man but a brief anomie between the lever and the brakes, the man who wore death infiltrated the bike.
The ten-year-old boy on the bike pedaled harder, his torso bent over the top of the frame. The cars came on. The brakes gave out. The bike began to swerve away. Yet instead of absenting himself from the bike and taking his post up again on the curb, the man who wore death festered deep in the frame.
And then there was no going back.
As the boy jackknifed over the top of the hood, his head snapped up against his chest and the top of his spinal cord snapped in two pieces. He somehow subsided on top of the hood, one arm hanging over the driver’s side window, blood yo-yoing down from his hand to the street where it pattered and set near the tire. Glops of blood escaped his mouth. A young woman sat at the wheel of the car with two small daughters in the back. One was older, facing forward, the other one younger and still in a car seat, and the two of them, too, began yelling and sobbing while clutching at each other’s arms. A man from a neighboring house ventured forward and lifted him down from his altar of blood, the child lolling there like his very own child, like a child he was putting to bed, in his arms.
Other mothers and fathers, and sisters and brothers ran out of the houses nearby in a throng.
The man from the neighborhood staggered away and laid the boy upon some grass.
That was when something unheard of took place.
The crowd of people leaned away. The child’s broken body was rising again: his bloodstained and angelic mouth. His bruised and cluttered limbs. His eyes. The links in the boy’s shattered neck were correcting. His breath traveled from him in great, gummy rasps. He was popping his neck as he rose from the lawn like a welterweight boxer half dead on his feet and the people lurched back to allow him this blessing, this requisitioned life, regained.
Such a thing hadn’t happened in all of creation. And yet it had happened before, in a sense. Everything in Death’s kingdom had already happened, which allowed Death to know who would die on what day. The ten-year-old boy rising up from the lawn was its own kind of harbinger, vis-à-vis Death, though the man who wore death didn’t know it just then.
He was simply obeying the dictates of nature. Or disobeying, as it were.
Because here was the thing about Death’s functionaries: their natures had never been theirs to obey.
The resurrection came and went, but the man who wore death still remembered the boy.
He remembered, of course, the reanimate limbs and how red blood had stained the mouth, but he also remembered the cries of the children (Just like Jesus! Just like Jesus!), the fathers’ violent gasps and sobs, the serene, faintly puzzled expression of joy on the faces of mothers, reduced to their knees. He might’ve only swerved the bike before righting its course again (might’ve, but hadn’t) and this had been the thing at last that would not let the boy stay dead.
And then like a glitch in a programming system or an isolated ripple on the surface of a pond, death had smoothed itself over, reversed, self-corrected.
There’d been no great unwinding of Death in Her robes that gathered him up into reckoning thunder. There’d been no reverse rapture that marked him alone, Death’s voice, in the voice of a harpy, declaiming. There’d been no sign, no visitation.
Here were more he brought about.
Instead of becoming a heavy nosebleed down the face of a boy at his grandfather’s funeral—he was eating a cheese stick amidst the reception—looking ahead to a heavier one when the boy overdosed on cocaine at a party, dying on the bathroom floor, his limbs outflung at thirty-six, the man who wore death had a different plan. He bloated to an aneurysm that stopped the boy’s heart and collapsed him facedown, shattering the coffee table, a curtain of blood inundating his shirt. But then as relatives crowded around, touching the boy’s slippery face with their hands, the boy twitched his nose and raised his hand to brush the cheese crumbs from his face.
Instead of becoming a wobbly stool where a bipolar stagehand was tying a noose for the climactic scene in a high school play, the sudden bucking of the stool beneath the swaying of the noose foretelling the suicide the stagehand would enact two years later in college, the man who wore death had contrived otherwise. He made the bucking stool collapse, and the neck of the stagehand get caught in the noose, and the noose sway with vigor above the footlights to the horror and trauma of everyone watching. But when the stagehand’s classmates took her down and laid her out upon the stage, the life that had fled her came flooding again and she lurched up among the small crowd that had gathered.
Instead of becoming a faulty crosstie in the path of an oncoming passenger train—the train had left New Orleans and was headed to Chicago—causing the train to go snaking insanely and prognosticating the various deaths of all the passengers on board, the man who wore death acted out of impatience. He formed as a gap in the tracks up ahead and the train jackknifed out of alignment and flipped, the train’s middle cars going end over end. The arms and legs of passengers sticking out of the windows that no longer were. The conflagration fires burned low and soon the survivors walked out of the smoke to stand around the mangled cars while out of them clambered the scorched and the bloodied, the twisted and torn, the impaled and on fire. Yet as they dropped to earth again their depredations seemed to heal, their limbs growing back and their burns smoothing over while onlookers’ eyes rolled up white in their heads.
He was in these moments not merely one functionary enacting the work of the Grand Secretary but a creature of influence, spirit, conviction.
In some ways he even resembled a man. And every man, he felt, was different.
He had seen them drink beer with the fridge door still open and he had seen them love their wives. He had seen them rotate in the dark air of evening, sparks shooting out the ends of their hands.
The deaths he made were more than deaths. They were a form of earthly grace.
And he grew, in a manner, addicted to grace, to the weird miracles that he caused to occur, and when he did not make them so he shook inside his skin of clothes.
Yet the man who wore death nursed his cravings in secret. Nobody was witness for nobody saw him. And the man who wore death had occasion to doubt: Had they been miracles at all?
Here were questions he courted but never addressed, a truth he glimpsed about the world.
And just as momentarily—vertiginous, dense, and unspeakably gray—the prow of Death’s bureaucracy, driving its shadow abreast of the earth.
A couple weeks later he found himself trekking a mountainous region in pretty deep winter. The lowlands had started in brittle tall grass that climbed through a snowfield occasioned with pines. The sky was as polished and hard as a grave. The man who wore death wore his high khaki pants and his button-up shirt with the faintest blue stripes but nothing else for warmth, and these were suited to his needs.
He was there on an errand as Death’s functionary, tracking a man on his climb to the top. The man was a famous and skilled mountaineer who had climbed in his lifetime a good many peaks. This would’ve been another one were it not for the man who wore death on his trail, anonymous amidst the snow, continuing on when the mountaineer rested.
Though distant by hundreds of yards from the climber, the man who wore death was beginning to change. The treacherous rockslide would only just miss them. Right before it reached the men, it would hit a broad ledge of stone just above them and would go pouring past them, life-hungry and fluid, and the climber would know by it two decades later that men such as him cheated Death only once.
But the man who wore death knew he wouldn’t stop there.
In other words, he knew full well he would bully them all from the edge of the pass, and he would be down in the snowfields again when they startled up mangled and rimed in cold blood. He would witness the new virgin breaths that they took, pluming in the winter air.
Would’ve done but never did.
The bureaucracy had another plan for him.
He was on the last stretch of his trek up the mountain, just behind the mountaineer, and since the way ahead of them went one way up and one way down, he figured that it could not hurt to stop for a moment and look at the stars. He wasn’t human, this was true, but had often been moved and transfixed by earth’s beauty. He had even had cause to stand trembling before it: the way that twilight mutes and glares through the curtains of moss overhanging a river. The way that a valley with green humps and peaks will be woven among its depressions with fog. Now he lay on his back on the densely packed snow and watched newer snow falling out of the sky and beyond it the stars in their icy precision. The man who wore death hardly noticed at first when a strip of white cloth brushed the tip of his nose.
A figure descended from out of the grayness. She was cloaked in white robes from Her toes to Her head, and the robes surged around Her like something alive, and She rushed past the eyes of the man who wore death for what seemed like a hundred feet, Her mantle of white desolation unending pouring down around him where he lay in the snow.
As the Grand Secretary unraveled around him, the world before him seemed to change. His view of the branches, the snow, and the stars was on fire at the edges with tongues of white cloth. He felt his blood, if blood he had, repolarize and change its course. Now cycling through him was some other substance, not life-giving fluid but vast information, a list of the dying and soon-to-be-dead which was actually every last name on the planet, the numberless Rolls of the Grand Secretary, and now he alone among Death’s functionaries could say what lived beneath the robes.
He had done it to do it, the act in itself. He had done it so Death would be forced to undo it. He had done it to show he was different somehow in the scheme of Death’s legion and cowed functionaries—that he was more than just a cog, that he, too, had the power to make or unmake. And had done it, he figured, for so many reasons apart from the will of the Grand Secretary, but now as She settled around him whole cloth he saw the opposite was true.
He had done it for Death: Her regard, Her approval. He saw that there was no one else.
He felt himself lifting along with the robes until he was floating above the expanse. The shape of the man in the high khaki pants and the button-up shirt with the faintest blue stripes was hollowed in the snow below, new snowfall beginning to blur him already.
Through the white agonies of the robes he saw this: the way down the mountain, tree mottled and steep. A skinny old woman in nothing but rags was walking downhill through the onrushing snow. Her head was cowled against the cold and she took the hill slowly, arms crooked at her sides, the ends of the arms poking out of the rags as frail and luminous as bone.
He could see she was old, very old, close to death. Her breath smoked in the winter air. And though he could not see her face, her movements bespoke a profound apprehension, like an old woman crossing an iced-over pond in the knowledge this step or the next one will take her.
She would not last out here for long.
The man who was Death felt the robes warming to him, conforming themselves to his torso and limbs. The woman stopped walking, turned halfway around. There in the dark of her cowl she stood, waiting.
Adrian Van Young is the author of The Man Who Noticed Everything, a collection of stories, and Shadows in Summerland, a novel. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Collagist, Black Warrior Review, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Slate, VICE, The Believer, and The New Yorker, among others.