My birthday is rather special time of year. In the day, there are good wishes, parties and a good time to be had by all. In the night however, events tend to take a rather morbid turn…
I prepared this year, as I always do: A chilled bottle of wine hidden out of sight and a pair of large candles; both of which would last the night.
I would then take a seat on the sparse wooden floor of my storage room and wait. Always I would end up waiting as the minutes ticked on by, for my companion was never early nor was she ever late. Indeed, she would only arrive precisely when she was meant to.
I peered into the shadows as time wore on by. The flickering light of the candles did little to aid my vision, filling it with the blissful pirouettes of the dancing shadows. I was always nervous during these times and indeed, I had reason to be. Most would have lived their lives without a spiritual encounter. Most should be glad to be a part of the boring world. For in a world without incident, filled with peaceful days, one’s fantasies remain intact and one can continue to live in the warm embrace of ignorance.
“You’re late,” I called out as I saw the familiar rippling of the shadows that hinted at my companion’s arrival.
“Never my dear, for I am here as I was meant to be,” she replied, her voice as smooth as velvet and seductive enough to carry a man into his most lustful fantasies.
I checked the time on my watch and indeed the clock proved her statement rather clearly. The hour hand sat straight on the dot of the number one and the minute hand rested directly upon the twelve. “The witch’s hour,” my companion smiled, reading my thoughts as she often did
I found myself grinning as I reached for the concealed wine bottle. I hadn’t the money to pay for a fine vintage, but she had never once complained. Instead she set out our usual pair of wine goblets, adorned with the lovely face of a screeching gargoyles, upon the empty space just beside each candle.
The material of the goblets was as mysterious as ever. It was cold as the touch and never once lost its chill. Yet it would not bite the hand of those who held it and indeed my palms remained warm no matter how long I held it.
I poured our respective shares silently and bowed my head as I handed her the first goblet. I wasn’t certain if human mannerisms were proper with such a being, but having been raised in a traditional Asian family, I knew no other way to act.
She smiled at me, sweet as she pleased whilst gently lifting the goblet from my fingers. She took the first sip and gestured for me to do the same. I obeyed her gladly and drank an equal portion, the small sip of wine tasting sugary sweet; for she knew that I despised bitter things.
“And so another year passes,” she said, a look of warmth and affection in her eyes. “Each year it is the same. I do not change and neither do you.”
“Indeed,” I replied, a businessman’s grin spreading across my face, “and each year I delight in the fact that your beauty remains as perfect and flawless as ever.”
“Flatterer,” she giggled as she stroked a hand over her thighs. It was a gesture that would seem unconscious to most, but in her case, she was simply imitating the type of behaviour I found attractive. It was her way of putting her companions at ease, but even a perfect illusion could not hide the truth that lay beneath her illusory skin.
The flickering of the candles was usually what gave it away. Her shimmering translucent skin would turn transparent at times, and it was during those moments that one could glimpse the browning bones that lay beneath.
Death would always appear in a form that was comforting or desirable to its subjects. It was a simple way of alleviating the fear that one would feel when confronted by such a being. Yet, to those who have already resigned themselves to their fate, its appearance could not be perfectly masked.
“I must say, you seem to be staring at me rather intently,” she said, her eyes calling for my attention. “Is there perhaps something that displeases you?”
“No,” I said, smiling quickly, “I was merely thinking of the paths forgone.”
She stood and walked over to the small window that peered out from the storage room. “I often consider the same thing Siddhartha. I have always wondered; why did you choose this path?” She turned to face me, and brought her face close to mine. Her eyes stared as though they were peeking through to my soul. “Eight years ago, when we first met, you could have asked me for anything. Money, power or even myself,” she brought her lips close to mine, they were painted a vibrant blue colour to contrast with her pale skin, “I would have been all you desired you know.”
I sighed and inched backward, distancing myself from her. Staying to close was to court death in both a figurative and literal sense, for there were few who could resist her charms. Her scent, her lips, her voice and her body, everything was configured to be one’s perfect desire and if you stayed close or too long, you would easily end up swallowed by it.
“In my opinion, there are more important things than those little luxuries we often avail ourselves to. I simply chose the path that I felt would benefit the most people, irrespective of personal cost.”
She looked at my quizzically, her cat-like eyes narrowing as she walked toward the window and threw it open. She then turned on me and brought me to her side in a snap. “Look out that window and tell me what you see Siddhartha. What, pray tell, is so worthy of this trial? Look outside this window and tell me if anyone cares. Does anyone know or acknowledge your sacrifice; will the fat man on the couch be any better but for your suffering? You gain nothing from this and I am certain that you, as well as I, know that. So tell me, for I have never once fathomed the answer to your choice, what made you choose this path?”
I chuckled and walked away from the window. I turned twenty-three this year but this scene made me feel like an old man of eighty. “You are right spirit, indeed I could have taken a more selfish pathway. Being the pervert that I am, I would most likely have simply chosen you instead of money or power. Yet, I had to put my own life into perspective when first I made that choice. To me, I had foreseen what I would become. I had watched the years going forward and I decided after much debate that in the grand scheme of things: I am a man who is deserving of death. I do not wish it upon myself, but I accept it. Indeed, everything that was predicted on that day has come true.”
“And yet I, and most of the world, would probably agree that there are men who are far worse than you proclaim yourself to be. They live lives where they do not have to fear anything, so why should you condemn yourself whilst others enjoy a life of success and greatness?”
“That is because all of us have the freedom to make a choice. We can see what lies in front of our eyes and pretend that we are blind, or we can accept it for what it is and make a choice for the better. Had I simply chosen the path of ignorance, I would have benefitted greatly, but those that came after me would have suffered for it. I could have simply said to myself, ‘someone else will eventually make that sacrifice’, but if I couldn’t bring myself to make that choice here and now, could I really have expected another to do the same?”
I paused mid-statement to draw breath and settle my thoughts. A gulp of wine made it a great deal easier and I was able to carry on with little difficulty. “What if everybody else thought as I did and no one chose a path other than that of excess or wealth. What then? If I could not satisfy myself that eventually a man in my shoes might have made the right choice out of those presented; I would not have slept soundly, no matter what manner of possessions I amassed.”
“And yet, by choosing this pathway, you have never slept soundly. Each night the nightmares return ever stronger and slowly you descend into madness. The pain of these faceless shades, or those long passed will eventually become marked as your own. Their anguish and grief will take what is left of you and rot your mind away. All for the promise of knowledge and understanding,” she shook her head and gazed at me with saddened eyes. “You’ve already lasted longer than anyone else, eight years of having your mind eaten and still you managed to weather it. Don’t you think you’ve gone far enough? Don’t you think you should enjoy normality and give up this mad exercise?”
“You are right spirit; I do sometimes ponder the other side of the field. Yet, you know as well as I do that no matter what you feel for me, this choice cannot be reversed.” I lowered my head and laughed. The sound echoed like a hollow tin against the wooden floor and it brought the emptiness within me into stark perspective. “Some days I do ask myself what would have become of the hopeful fifteen year old boy; had he not seen the things he did. I wonder sometimes, if such a future could have existed. Yet I remain convinced that the five years which remain can be overcome and then I shall have peace at long last.”
Death smiled and shook her head. She reached out to stroke me on the cheek, much like a mother would do for her precious child. In her eyes I saw both confusion and sorrow, but also a resolve that mirrored my own. “The end will be painful you know, there will be no glory for you, no white halls and harps. You will burn like the rest, once you have passed from this world.”
“Will it be painful?” I asked, as I absentmindedly swirled what remained of the wine in my cup.
“Yes,” she replied, her expression solemn, “It will be.”
I swallowed, finding it surprisingly difficult despite knowing what would come. Then again however, it is only human to feel some measure of fear. “Good then,” I whispered, gritting my teeth for a moment before carrying on, “It will be as I deserve.”
Death shook her head and held out her hand. I passed my goblet back to her and she smiled, the pair of them vanishing into her shadowy dress. “Until we meet again next year my dear, try not to do anything too stupid.” She seemed gentle as she planted a kiss of farewell upon my forehead.
I nodded, feeling tired and worn. I had neither the strength to return her gesture nor the will to do so. It was simply heavy in my heart as I half-bowed to her, “Indeed, we wouldn’t want me croaking early now would we.” I surprised myself when I managed to keep my voice steady.
I did not raise head to watch her vanish as I normally did. For this year the choice weighed even more heavily upon my shoulders. I was tired and bitter, but I swallowed it and eventually found the strength to move.
Eight years down and only five left to go. Oh well, it is not so bad being driven into insanity. At the very least I’m sure that I’ll have plenty of company.
-Chen Yuan Wen, 9th August 2013