A Small Death

Ronald Monroe lay in the bed, the bleep-bleep of machinery steady and repetitive.

Somewhere, something offered pneumatic hisses and whispers. His breaths wheezed at greater intervals, the last gasps of the soon-to-be-deceased. The world beyond his vision blurred — enshrouded in the gloom. Shadows encroached with every moment.

From the nurses’ station down the hallway came the sound of a radio. Bruce Dickinson’s voice wavered along the corridor. The song took him back 30 years. Leather jackets. Metal studs. Long hair. Tight blue jeans before grunge drowned all in flannel bagginess. Good friends. Laughter. Late nights. Dark skies. Drinking together.

The door creaked open. The haze swallowed the fluorescent lights and sterile whiteness of the tiled corridor. He kept his moist eyes on that oblivion in the hallway. Ronny’s gaze never faltered, nor did he tremble. His heartbeat — weak as though it was — did not speed up.

The robed figure with the scythe strode into the room. Ronny nodded at him, as one acknowledges an old friend. Death’s hood — face not visible within — bobbed up and down in return. “Mr Monroe,” said Death. His voice did not travel like a normal sound. It came from the air itself, poured out of the pores of the universe. It came from within, echoed in the chambers of Ronny’s heart, bounced around the insides of his skull. It rasped like dirt shovelled into a grave, grated like an epitaph chiselled into a tombstone.

But that wasn’t all. Someone else shuffled behind that reaper of grimness. Half the size of the former. Dressed the same. Black cloak, face obscured. At this smaller figure, Ronny raised an eyebrow. The strength to vocalise had since departed, but Death seemed to understand. He nodded and gestured to the smaller one.

“I hope you don’t mind,” said Death. Was that hesitation in his voice? “Today’s bring-your-child-to-work day. I, uh, brought my daughter.” He put a skeletal hand — no muscle or ligaments held it together — on the other’s shoulder, ushered her forward. “Sweetie, say hello to the nice man.”

Now that she stepped forward in front of her father, Ronny could see the resemblance. Same void where a face should be. The same shawl dangled over her frame, in a child’s size. Her hands were nought but bone — delicate, pointy. The same aura of inevitability underlined with peace and release. The nothingness of the face looked at the ground. One of her fleshless feet shuffled. She spoke down into her cloak. “Hello.”

“Is it okay if my daughter has a go? She’s been asking all day.”

A faint smile touched the corner of Ronny’s lips — tugged at the nasal cannula. He nodded as best he could.

Death gave his daughter a gentle nudge forward. “Go on, sweetie, don’t be shy. He won’t bite, will you, Ronny?”

Ronny grinned with his soul. His head shook.

“Okay, Dad.” The voice bore a striking similarity to the former’s. Albeit, at a higher pitch. Female. Childlike. As much of a contradiction as it was, the voice was youthful.

Death handed over the scythe to the little reaper. If he’d been able to, Ronny would have chuckled at the sight. Like a child who holds an oversized guitar. She used both hands to clutch it, whereas her father had waved it with an experienced one-handed grip. Death’s daughter wobbled a bit. The non-pointy end hit the visitor’s chair in the corner. “Oh, sorry,” she said. More of a mumble. “Such a clutz. Dad, I don’t think I can—”

“Don’t worry, sweetie.” That cold, stonelike voice grew warmer, softer. Rounder. “Keep going. You’ve got this. Just as we practised.”

Miniature Death nodded and stepped forward, stood at the side of the bed. She clunked the end of the scythe down on the tiles. Now that she was closer, Ronny’s rheumy eyes could take in more of the detail. There was a pink bow on the side of the cloak’s upraised hood. She was, in Ronny’s opinion, rather cute. “Ronald Monroe,” she said, “you have lived a good life. Although, uh…”

Her Dad provided the words. “Although far be it for me to judge you accordingly.”

“Oh, yeah!” She cleared her throat. “Although far be it for me to judge you accordingly. That’ll come after. Your time has come. I, the collector of the soul, have come to reap that which must be reaped. With this scythe—” she staggered a little as she raised it “—I sever the final connection between body and soul. After which I — my Dad, I mean — will guide you to the afterlife.”

In the background, the singer’s voice began to wail, twin guitars sliced through the air in harmony.

Death’s daughter continued. “Do not feel fear, for this is natural. Death is the one thing all living things share in common, along with birth. It is not the end, it is just the opposite of the beginning. Do you come of your own accord, Ron— I mean, Mr Monroe?”

Ronny smiled at the child. Call me Ronny, said his heart.

“Then with that, your soul I now reap.”

The scythe dropped.

Ronald Monroe gasped for the last time in his life.

In the hallway, the song descended into chaos as the band finished up. Drums rolled. Guitars squealed. Bruce screamed. Beneath the music, footsteps — quick, panicked — clattered against the tiles.

The machines in the room issued a steady bleep. The body lay still. Perfect, motionless.

The three figures left together, unseen by the nurses who rushed into the room.

In the distance, down some strange hallway, a new song had started to play.

10th November 2020

Written for the November 2020 #BlogBattle

5 thoughts on “A Small Death

  1. Gary

    Good Lord Josh, I’m in the disk world now with DEATH and his grand daughter. Oddly the very one where HE decided to take a vacation. Followed by an image of HIM honing the scythes blade with the wind. You may, or may not, be surprised that I have also pondered the last thoughts and rushing memories of the final moments. What do you hear, feel, think. Can you actually do any of those? I suppose that really depends on the method of finding the path to the clearing.

    I also think bring the child to work idea is most hilarious here. Succession planning for Death is pretty funny. The four horsemen becoming something of a herd by extrapolation. It does raise the question of Mrs Death too…or is it a touch of sadness at reaping a child and then deciding not to pass it forward, but keep her as a trainee ready for an apocalypse that will require a humongous workforce…. hmm, wasn’t that also explored in the disk world?

    • Joshua G. J. Insole

      Thanks, Gary! I was aiming for a Pratchettesque tone. Which books did the granddaughter appear? I’ve read the Death trilogy (Mort, Reaper Man, Soul Music) but can’t remember her very well at all. My partner reckons she’s a character in one of the books where he’s not a main character, but we can’t remember which one!

      Yes, I wanted to approach it in how I’d like the end to be — no fear, just acceptance and peace. Like welcoming an old friend. Whether or not that’s the truth shall remain a mystery to me for a good while (I hope!).

      I was thinking that there’s a Mrs Death — perhaps even an entire race of Grim Reapers? Who knows. Might explore it further if I can get the motivation… Yes, it was! I love how Pratchett’s work is simultaneously hilarious and profound, with moments of poignancy. Something I really aspire to match.

      • Gary

        She appears in three if memory serves, Soul Music, Hogfather and Thief of Time. I thought you might get Hofather as it was done as a tv series with David Jason in. That would be the one your partner was thinking of maybe?

        I’ve often, as you know, pondered a piece of nonsense humour. Pratchett and Rankin blends. If you’ve not read The Brentford Trilogy then give it a go. Bit more than a trilogy now mind! I think you’d rather like The Professor and his arch nemesis Count Otto Van Black. Not to mention Rizla…

  2. aebranson

    I enjoyed the touch of humor in this, and the last sentence made me sit and ponder for a while. Does the new song mean Death is going to reap somebody else? Or is it more along the lines of the song ‘Sing a new song unto the Lord,’ with Ronny meeting his maker? Could be both….The whole Death’s daughter setup was also quite intriguing as it made me grapple with the logistics. Like Gary, I wonder how she got there, but the question is stimulating and not problematic. What I do love about this story is how Ronny was ‘ready’ for death, that he possessed hope and optimism and greeted Death as a friend – I also loved the bit about ‘not the end, just opposite of the beginning.’ There is a brightness and light to this piece that I believe you nailed, a different twist on the darkness that usually accompanies such scenarios. Oh, and for the record, your story this month has no bearing on my story next month – any similarities are strictly coincidental! 😉 Great work!

    • Joshua G. J. Insole

      Thanks, AE! I’m so glad the piece caused some contemplation. I left that bit intentionally vague, as I didn’t want to say one way or another. I think that whatever the reader thinks happens next is what happens. 🙂

      I need to get on reading this month’s stories! So behind on everything! The title of your latest one is really intriguing — I hope to read it ASAP. 🙂

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