by Luc Haasbroek
You know me.
And I know you.
We’ve met many times, and we will meet again. We always do.
Still don’t remember me? Here’s a clue: I’m your best friend. Your worst enemy. Your parent. Your child. Your teacher. Your pupil.
I am nothing.
And I am everything.
I am Death.
Ah, I see you remember me now.
And you hate me, don’t you? You’re frightened of me. Please don’t be. I’m not who you think I am. I’m not a bully who strolls around taking swipes with his scythe. I’m not the player who rolls all the dice and holds all the cards. I’m not the cause; I’m the consequence.
But you humans just don’t understand that. Even today you paint me as the joker playing sadistic games for his own amusement, treating lives like easily-replaced toys.
Death isn’t a game, friend. It’s a dance.
Yes, the steps change – sometimes we tango, other times we waltz. And it’s true that the dancers come and go – some leave, some join in. But the dance of death never stops. We jive from dusk till dawn, baby. Always have, always will.
And I know all the steps.
I’m not the choreographer; I’m a dancer, like you. I’ve just owned my dancing shoes a lot longer than you have.
Of course, people try to upset the dance. Try to escape the ballroom. They try.
Perhaps you’ll be the next to try. Just remember this if you want to cheat me: the dealer always wins.
Well, not always.
There have been some…irregularities. But they are the exception – the rare, rare exception – rather than the rule. They are so rare, in fact, that I keep a record of them.
I have a book filled with these tales (for they truly are extraordinary) and I think it is time someone should hear them.
Are you ready?
Don’t be frightened; take my hand. I’ll be your guide. Close your eyes. Feel the rhythm.
Shall we dance?
It was a Tuesday afternoon that I met her, the girl who changed everything.
It was hot. I remember that. Even at four in the afternoon Durban was already putting on her succulent summer nightgown.
I was there on business. A man was going to die. Or so I’d been told. Things don’t always work out the way they say – often I’m dispatched to collect someone, they come within a hair’s breadth of my fingers, only to make a sudden recovery. Dodge death by a whisker.
I don’t like this. It wastes time. I’m on a very busy schedule (not as busy as my opposite number, but a busy one nonetheless) and I can’t afford to spend the afternoon waiting for Pops to kick the bucket only to find out that his bypass was a success.
That particular Tuesday I was waiting for Neville Kumar, 76, pneumonia, doctors said he wouldn’t make the night. The whole Kumar clan crowded around his bed, holding his hands, telling stories of family holidays gone comically wrong, while I waited in the corner. And waited. And waited.
Then – lo and behold – something interesting happened; Old Kumar began to splutter like an ancient Citi Golf. While the family gasped, I cleared my throat, got into character and took centre stage.
As I was about to begin my standard speech (“Hi, I’m Death. Don’t believe me? Here’s my business card…”) Kumar abruptly stopped coughing. The guy stopped. I was about to carry him away and he stopped.
There was a pregnant silence, then the old man smiled. Smiled. What a let down.
I left. I had more important things to do than listen to Aunt Carol reminisce about that time the rickshaw collapsed in Mauritius. I took a shortcut, passing through the fence and into the neighbours’ garden.
It was there that I met her.
She was sitting on a rock, drawing in the sand with a stick. I barely noticed her. I strode past, not sparing her a second glance.
Then she said, “Have you come for the foonewal?”
I didn’t think she was talking to me, at first. I carried on walking, but just as I was about to depart, I realized that I hadn’t noticed any other life force around. I stopped, and turned around.
She was about five. She watched me from the rock with eyes like diamonds. There was something about her stare – like armour-piercing rounds. She was x-raying my soul (please entertain the fantasy; I like to believe I have one).
“Well?” she demanded.
“Whose funeral?” I said cautiously, unsure if she really was talking to me. It was impossible, but…
“Tibbs’,” she said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, duh.
That explained it. Animals weren’t my field. I was in charge of people; there was a whole other department for animals.
“Sit down,” the girl instructed, gesturing to a rock across from hers.
“I’m sorry,” I said slowly, “but I’m really busy, I…”
There was no point arguing – this little girl’s word was law.
The girl watched me with steely eyes.
“Uh…alright,” I said, and awkwardly made my way over to the rock. I kept looking over my shoulder, thinking (hoping) this might be a prank set up by those idiots from the Life & Growth department.
“What’s your name?” Little Miss Bullet Eyes demanded.
“Ah, that’s a tricky one,” I said, “It’s a foreign name.”
She was drawing in the sand again.
“I doubt you’d be able to pronounce it.”
The girl shrugged.
“And, err,” I said, watching the girl doodle (she was writing the word Tibbs repeatedly), “what’s your name?”
“That’s a very nice name.”
“That’s what Mrs Singh says. She’s my teacher.”
“Mrs Singh is a smart lady. How old are you, Thandi?”
“Four and a half.”
She showed me the appropriate number of fingers.
“And Thandi, you…you can see me?”
“Yes, silly. Hold this.”
She handed me a blue plastic spade.
“Dig.” Thandi pointed at the patch of earth between my rock and hers.
“What for?” I asked.
That was the first time I ever took orders from a human.
I dug. I don’t know why I dug, but I dug. Maybe I was just too shocked to argue. Maybe it was the way Thandi watched me; nodding when I did something right, like move a stone out the way, shaking her head when I made a mistake. For about five minutes I sat there, soil sailing over my shoulder, being judged by a four and half year old girl. She seemed impressed with my efforts (if I may say so myself), inspecting the patch of earth which had now metamorphosed into a hole, thanks to yours truly.
“Good,” was Thandi’s verdict after she’d examined my hole. She then turned to the shoebox lying beside her, opened it, and took something out. The something was embalmed in tissues.
“Is that Tibbs?” I asked as she laid the Kleenex mummy in my hole.
“Was he your cat?”
“Then whose was he?”
Thandi shrugged. “I found him.”
“Then why are you burying him?”
“Because,” Thandi said, plucking a carnation and laying it on top of Tibbs, “he lived. Would you like to say the youjelly?”
“Um, I… I didn’t really…” I looked between the dead cat and Thandi’s wide, expectant eyes, “Okay, alright. Um…Tips was…”
“Tibbs.” Thandi corrected.
“Tibbs. Right. He was a very…a very good feline.”
“What’s a flea lion?”
“It’s a…a kind person.”
Thandi nodded seriously, as if this was exactly what Tibbs was.
“He…he will be missed,” I concluded. Hey, I never said I was creative.
“Yes,” Thandi agreed, “Cover him up.”
I did as I was told. While I patted down the soil I asked, “Thandi, what did you mean, he lived?”
“He was alive,” Thandi said, gathering a handful of carnations, “He was a cat.”
“I know, but why are you burying him? He doesn’t mean anything to you.”
“But he meant something to someone,” Thandi said, setting the carnations down on Tibbs’ grave, “He…Mommy!”
A woman wearing enormous sunglasses appeared at the garden gate, shouldering a dozen shopping bags.
“Bye Tibbs,” Thandi wished the patch of ground, then waved me goodbye and ran off, “Mommy!”
I sat there for a while. Maybe an hour after Thandi had gone inside.
But he meant something to someone.
That sentence echoed around my mind. I felt hollow as I left that garden. I went back to work, of course – there was always something to be done – but I never quite felt the same after the burial of Tibbs.
A part of me had died that afternoon, I told myself. I had left something behind there. So I returned. Often I would spend my free time sitting on that rock, the grave (already starting to be blanketed by grass) at my feet. I saw Thandi often, playing in the pool with her friends, soccer with her dad. But I doubt she saw me.
But he meant something to someone.
That’s what I thought every time I was called out to a job. This person meant something, I would think as I carried away a soul. Maybe not to me, but to someone.
They affected me after that. Every job. Before that things had just been business. But after Thandi, they were…personal. I became…I became…depressed.
I’ve handed in my resignation.
The department was shocked. At first. Then they laughed. I didn’t care.
They’re finding me a replacement, you know. First time they’ve ever had to find a replacement. That’s what the guys in the other departments talked about around the water cooler.
“…you hear about Death?”
“…ya, bru, got all Dr Phil on us…”.
I don’t know when my replacement starts, but I wish him luck. I hope he realizes sooner than I did how crazy this job is.
I don’t know a lot of things. General knowledge isn’t required in my field of work. But I do know that after Tibbs’ foonewal, a part of me didn’t die, as I had thought. A part of me came alive.
It took me a lifetime of being Death to learn that there’s a lot more to life than dancing.