It had been eighteen minutes since Death had arrived and the witch had refused to be taken.
The spell was like spiderweb, intricate threads woven into the world, and Death had paused to admire it. They’d known that the witch might fight, for the powerful often greeted them with defiance. Fire had been flung at Death in every hue, while others they’d visited had attempted deceit, offering up innocents cloaked in their own guise. One wizard had tried a love spell, not understanding that Death already loved them all. But the witch’s web was something new; it was an attempt to trap Death in its threads. It was elegant and audacious and cunning, and yet…
“You are aware,” said Death, “that this approach will fail?”
The witch had turned forty a week before, and she was no longer as easily cowed as she had been a decade earlier. So she shrugged and smiled. “You’re right, it’ll probably fail. Still, it’s worth a try. Besides…”
She trailed off, and Death finished the sentence for her, having heard the sentiment many times before, “Besides, you would rather go out fighting.”
The witch frowned. “No, why would I…” She rolled her eyes. “Is that what other people say? You deal with a lot of morons, don’t you?”
Death did not comment.
“It’s beautiful,” the witch said, gesturing along the Melbourne laneway where they sat. Shoe-box cafes ran its length, tables spilling onto the pavement along with the smell of coffee. Graffiti turned the walls into a riot of colour, and the sound of milk steaming mingled with shouted orders and laughter and chatter. People strode along the alleyway, ducking in and out of cafes, oblivious to Death and the witch.
“I suppose it has its own sort of beauty,” Death said.
The witch nodded, plucking at the edges of her spell. “I plan to enjoy it for every minute I can buy myself.”
Death sighed. “I do have others to visit.”
“And every minute you spend with me is a minute that they too get to look for beauty.” The witch drummed her fingers on the table, before tilting her head. “You could just leave us alone, you know?”
This strategy was familiar. Normally people would beg for a day or week or eternity, but though the witch showed unusual calm, the impulse was the same.
“You are aware,” Death said again, “that this approach will fail?”
The witch shrugged. “I’m aware you’re not capable of questioning your purpose, but it’s worth a try. Besides…” This time, when the witch trailed off, Death waited. The witch smiled. “Besides, it gained me a few seconds, didn’t it?”
“I suppose it did.”
Death turned from the witch and studied the spell once more, testing its strength and tracing its lines. It had been twenty-one minutes since they’d arrived, and by their best guess, in nine minutes and fifty seconds more they would have the spell unpicked. Their hands began to flow.
The witch’s spell was elegant, but Death unweaved it with a speed that no mortal could match. They did not enjoy doing so, but they did not allow this fact to slow them. Enjoyment was not the point. Still, they were disappointed when the spell withered faster than expected. Nine minutes and fifty seconds they’d guessed, but just six minutes had passed when they were ready to break the final strand.
They paused, half hoping the witch would say something to delay the end, but she just smiled and sipped a coffee she’d ordered while Death had been busy. Death sighed. They made the final gesture.
“Oh fuck,” Death said, as everything went wrong.
The web of the spell snapped back, threads that had been unweaved stitching themselves into the world once more. Only, this time, Death had been enmeshed with the disintegrating spell and, as it regrew, it ensnared much of their power. Death reflected on this fact.
“That was devious,” they said.
The witch nodded.
She slid a coffee across the table, and Death studied it, looking for signs of poisons or potions. There were none, so they lifted the cup and took a sip. Colombian beans, triple espresso, three shots of vanilla syrup.
Death had given up being astonished by the witch, but they were still curious. “How did you learn how I like my coffee?”
“I Googled it,” the witch said, and Death wasn’t sure whether she was joking.
They took another sip. “You realise this will not delay me long?”
“I do, but it’ll buy me time,” the witch said, gesturing at the alley and making a show of enjoying her coffee.
“I suppose it will.”
Death studied the witch’s spell. It was crafted of hundreds of threads, but at its core were a few dozen lines that formed the frame holding together the rest. Each of these was a moment in the witch’s life—a memory made manifest. It was these that Death would need to unpick: sever the frame; sever the web. And to unpick each memory, they would need to live it, forgetting themselves while they were submerged within.
“An interesting choice,” they said.
“Well, they say your life flashes before your eyes when you die, but what’s the point of that? I’ve already lived it. I want my life to flash before your eyes. I want you to understand.”
“You think this will convince me to spare you?” Death asked.
The witch shrugged.
Death finished their coffee, then they began the unweaving that would end with their power freed and the witch dead.
In the first frame-memory she was eight, years away from becoming the witch she would one day be, and she was walking home from school, taking a shortcut through the park. She wasn’t meant to walk this way; she was meant to keep to busy streets. Yet she would get a smack if she was late, so she always took the shortcut, and if her dad asked then a lie hurt less than a smack.
The day was sunny; sweat dripped down the not-yet-witch’s face. Across the park, jeering shouts came from the Hill, a slope that to an eight-year-old looked infinite. Here, five boys were lying down and rolling to the bottom, goading each other to start higher, tumble faster. They went to her school, the not-yet-witch realised. She didn’t know them, but they wore the uniform and she thought perhaps she’d seen them in the playground.
As she neared, the boys noticed her watching and stopped, looking unsure how to react.
Finally, one yelled, “Do you want a turn?”
The others laughed, jackal laughter that made her feel small and angry all at once. Except that the littlest of them did not laugh, but instead studied the not-yet-witch, and then turned to his friends.
“Girls don’t roll down hills,” he said.
Years later, the witch realised that, clumsy or not, the boy was trying to be kind—to give her a way out. As an eight-year-old, all she heard was a challenge.
“Girls do too roll down hills,” she retorted.
The one who had spoken first laughed. “Go on then.”
The not-yet-witch slung off her bag, dumping it on the ground. She hurried up the Hill, knowing her father would even now be glancing at the clock. She reached the halfway point, from where the boldest of the boys had started their descent. She marched on, stopping only when she reached the top.
When she looked down at the boys, her knees felt like jelly, but she was more stubborn than she was afraid. Still, her body shook as she lay on the grass, and she took a moment to curse all boys and all hills and the impracticality of skirts. Then she rolled.
She bounced and bumped. She jolted and rattled, the world spinning. She flew down the Hill, reached the bottom, momentum carrying her onwards across the flat. Finally, she came to a stop. By the time she’d caught her breath, the boys were crowding around.
“Pretty cool,” the littlest boy said, reaching out a hand and helping her to her feet.
“Nothing to it,” she replied, before almost falling as she took a dizzy step.
The boys laughed that jackal laughter again, and somehow she’d lost whatever competition they’d been having, even though she’d rolled from higher than any of them had dared to. She tried not to cry as she hurried away.
Between the park and her house there were no trees to cast shade. There were just the withered-grass lawns of suburbia and the burning sun. When she stepped through her door, she hurried to the kitchen, pulling a Coke from the fridge. She—
She was late. She could see this in the stiffness of her father’s stance. He had entered the room while she was distracted, and now he watched, jaw tight. Then he stepped forwards, a sudden move into deeper anger that she hadn’t foreseen. He grabbed the bottom of her shirt, pulling her toward him with the roughness of his grasp.
“What’s this,” he spat, staring at the shirt.
Her own gaze followed his. She froze, a dizzy coldness spreading to her arms, legs, head. There, by her father’s fingertips, was the green streak of a grass stain on the white of her shirt.
“What’s this,” her father asked again, enunciating each word.
“It’s… some boys pushed me over.” To the not-yet-witch, it didn’t feel like she was the one speaking the lie, but there it was, out in the world where it couldn’t be taken back.
Her father’s grip tightened. “Which boys?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Boys from school?”
“Yes,” she stammered. At once, she realised this was a mistake. She could always read her father’s most poisonous emotions, and this smile-that-pretended-not-to-be-a-smile was spite and triumph.
When he let go of her shirt, she teetered, stumbling back a step. She cowered, worried he would think she’d been running away, but he was striding from the room. She stood, uncertain whether it was over. If it was, she should go to her bedroom and clean it and do homework and be as quiet as possible. If it wasn’t, she should stand there, not moving an inch until he returned.
A moment’s more hesitation, and her father was back, slamming a magazine down on the counter. No, not a magazine. The school yearbook. He flicked through the pages until he reached one that was filled with black and white photos of students.
“Which boys?” He demanded.
She felt sick as she stared down at the goofy expressions and mistimed smiles. She couldn’t—
He stabbed his finger down onto the yearbook. “I said, which boys?”
She started and began hurriedly turning the pages. She pointed to the boys from the park, trying to remember their jackal laughter and to forget that they hadn’t really pushed her. Her father wrote each name on a scrap of paper.
Her memory of the rest of the evening was fuzzy. Her memory of the next day was fuzzy too, until it wasn’t. The principal’s office was small, certainly too small for the six of them that had been pulled from class and were now arrayed along one wall. In the middle of the room was a desk, the papers upon it arranged in neat piles. On the far side of this desk, the principal sat.
Balding and beanpole tall, he stared at the wall just past the not-yet-witch’s head when he said, “I received a call from your father, informing me that five boys had failed to live up to the standards we expect of our students.” His gaze flickered to the boys, four of whom were glaring at the not-yet-witch. The fifth, the smallest boy, was not looking at her at all but instead studying his feet. The principal looked back to the not-yet-witch. “But the boys say you chose to roll down that hill. So what I want to know is whether they really pushed you, or whether you… got things mixed up in your memory.”
The not-yet-witch knew he was giving her a chance to change her story, without needing to admit it was a lie. But if she did, he would call her dad, and if he called her dad…
“They pushed me,” she said, her voice cracking.
The principal sighed. “Well then, we’re going to have to stay here until we sort this out.” He resting his gaze on each of them for a moment but was met with silence, until…
“I did it,” said the little boy.
“I’m sorry?” The principal leaned forwards.
“I pushed her over,” said the littlest boy. “But it was just me. Maybe it happened so fast that she got confused.”
The principal looked to the not-yet-witch. “Could that be right?”
She stared at the table as she nodded her head.
For weeks, she would return to that moment in the principal’s office, worrying that the littlest boy might confess that he hadn’t pushed her. She would imagine begging him to keep the secret, but she never dared. It didn’t matter; the littlest boy was given detention for a month, and he went every day without complaint.
For years, she would return to that moment in the principal’s office, guilt gnawing at her. At first, she imagined tracking the boy down and apologising; later, she imagined thanking him for the kindness and for the lessons she’d learned from his kindness. She never did track him down, and one day she found herself in an alley with Death and it was too late.
The first thread of the spell fell apart, and Death emerged from the memory. They had witnessed many human lives, but the experience was rather different from the inside, and for the first time, Death felt the need to justify themselves.
“Omnia mutantur,” they said, reaching for something they’d been told long ago, “nihil interit.”
The witch rolled her eyes. “Latin, right? Unfortunately, I was too busy talking to the living to learn a dead language.”
Death almost rolled their eyes in return. “It’s a quote from the Roman poet Ovid. Everything changes, nothing perishes.”
“Very profound. And do be assured that I mean that in the worst possible way. It’s the sort of thing that sounds wise, as long as you don’t, you know… actually think about it. I mean, it’s fine as a line of poetry, but what can it mean between two people who know that no spirit transcends death? Sure, maybe Ovid’s atoms are drifting through the air; maybe a molecule of water from his body is in my coffee. But Ovid was not his atoms or his molecules, and only someone who wished to hide from the truth might find profundity in the idea that he lived on in hydrogen bonded to carbon or oxygen.”
“I liked Ovid,” Death replied, which they had to admit, didn’t add much to the conversation.
“Then it’s a shame that he changed into dust.”
The second frame-memory began with a homestead. It was huge, shaded by wide verandahs, and it was to be the still-not-witch’s home for a month. Herself and three other seventeen-year-olds had volunteered as jackaroos; they would do… well, whatever needed doing on a sheep farm on the edge of the outback.
They arrived late that first day, and in bed that first night, the still-not-witch thought of how far away home was. She slept better than she ever had.
The second day, they were put to work. While the others mustered sheep, the still-not-witch rode a motorbike across the vast paddock, searching for stragglers. Soon enough, she found a ram wandering alone, and ten minutes later, she was inventing new curse words as she tried to herd it to the others. When she’d finally done so, after two hours of struggle, she’d run out of curses and was muttering about how tasty the ram would one day be.
When she lay her head down that night, she thought the aching of her body would keep her awake for hours. She was asleep in seconds.
The third day, the farmer took them to the killing pen. Within, a ram awaited and while the still-not-witch couldn’t be sure this was the one she’d chased across the paddock, she suspected it was. In any case, the farmer declared that this was to be tomorrow’s dinner and that there was work to be done.
The knife was brutal, and the boy who was handed it tried too hard to look unbothered. He was given his instructions and swaggered into the pen. Here, he faltered, a scared boy staring at a scared sheep. Then his hand tightened on the knife, and he stepped forwards. The pen was small, with nowhere to hide, and this could only end one way. The boy took the final step.
The ram leapt the fence.
It ran. It was a pace away, two, three—
It came to an abrupt halt, a horn tangled in a discarded rope. Then the farmer was upon it, wrestling it down and flipping it onto its back.
“Quickly,” he yelled at the scared boy.
The boy did as he’d been told, thrusting the knife behind the jugular and ripping it out. Blood sprayed forth, but the ram was still twitching, bleating, and then its kicking threw off the farmer, and it climbed to its feet and ran, and there was blood staining the muddy white of its wool, and the scared boy grabbed it and the ram’s blood covered him, and then the farmer was there and the ram was on the ground and the movements grew weaker.
The two boys, the ones not holding the knife, began to laugh. They laughed as the scared boy looked at the blood on his shirt and his arms, and they laughed as the ram stilled.
The scared boy was shaking as the farmer said, “That was my fault.” He reached out and rested a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You did well. Go shower and take the afternoon off. The rest of us’ll deal with this.”
The other boys continued laughing, until the farmer explained how to skin the sheep and gut it. They stopped laughing then, and seeing their faces, the farmer sent them away to fix a fence.
He turned to the still-not-witch. “How about you?”
“I’ll be fine,” she said.
She wasn’t sure this was true, but she wasn’t one to hide from challenge and she wouldn’t hide from this. So she and the farmer stood together, skinning the sheep in silence but for the flow of the farmer’s instructions and the sound of the wind.
That night, she couldn’t sleep. Her mind lingered on the blood bubbling out, white wool stained with red. She couldn’t help but think that a sheep that leapt a fence deserved to escape. More than anything, she thought of the laughter. She didn’t understand how anyone could laugh while a terrified creature struggled and died.
She could have left things there. She could have condemned two boys she barely knew and congratulated herself for caring. But… it had been only yesterday that she had muttered about the ram meeting its end. Besides, if it was wrong to laugh then surely that meant the ram’s suffering mattered. If it didn’t matter then what could be wrong with laughter? Yet if this suffering mattered, then what of her choice to eat meat?
She turned over in bed again and again, unable to find comfort beneath the echoes of this question. She went to the bathroom and told herself to set this thought aside until morning, but as soon as she was nestled beneath her blanket once more, she remembered the laughter, and the question returned.
Finally, exhaustion beat unease and she slipped into sleep. She never ate meat again.
As the second strand of the spell collapsed, Death emerged from the memory, and for a moment they were not sure whether they were thinking their own thoughts or those of the witch. In that moment, they pondered the fact that the still-not-witch had not stopped eating meat because she’d learned a new fact, but rather because in the boys’ laughter she’d seen an old fact anew.
The witch was watching, head tilted, and Death realised they were mirroring this posture in turn. This realisation bothered them in a way that felt unfamiliar, and this unfamiliarity bothered them still more.
“Some people,” they said, hoping that the words would ground them, “say that I give life meaning.”
In front of the witch was a hedgehog slice, a brownie, and a carrot cake. She plunged her fork into the last of these and took a bite. She chewed slowly, swallowed, and then shrugged. “You do give life meaning. But so do lots of things. Family does and friends, and there’s the joy of spellcasting, the sight of a sunset, the taste of baking perfection. Sometimes I did things because I knew that one day I would meet you, but most of the time I didn’t think of you at all and I did things because they mattered to me. I think…” She studied Death. “I think maybe you’re the one who needs us.”
Death did not approve of this interpretation, but they suspected that mentioning this would not help their cause. So instead, they said, “And what’s the alternative? Everyone lives forever, joy slowly seeping from their lives as more and more of the world becomes mundane?”
“The alternative is that everyone lives as long as they want, so that no life is cut short, even when it’s cut off. When we’re ready, we can look you up in the Yellow Pages, give you a ring, and you can pop over for tea.”
Death looked pointedly around, letting their gaze rest on the phones held in people’s hands. “The Yellow Pages? You’re showing your age. They’ll probably want to Twitter me. Hashtag YOLO.”
The witch laughed, an uncontained chuckle. “Perhaps we’re both showing our age. Hashtag YOLO indeed.” She pushed aside the now empty plate of carrot cake and started on the brownie. When she saw Death watching, she paused. “I don’t see the point in worrying about tooth decay anymore, so if you’re judging me—”
Death held up their hands. “No judgement. I was just wondering…” They trailed off, their gaze dipping meaningfully to take in the plates in front of the witch.
The witch looked down, then slid the hedgehog slice across to Death.
The third and fourth frame-memories were entwined: one a beginning, the other an ending.
It began with a wooden rollercoaster on the St Kilda foreshore. This clattered and juddered as it went, and while there were no wild loops or plunging drops, still it gave the impression of running on the edge of disaster.
The fledgling-witch was twenty-seven and on a blind date. It was going well—Amaechi was handsome and conversation during dinner had been smooth—but silence had fallen as the rollercoaster ascended, lethargic on the upslope.
“So why here?” she asked, breaking this silence.
“My first job was as a brakesman,” he said, gesturing to a woman who stood in the middle of the rollercoaster, controlling the brakes that would manually slow them, in contravention of the fledgling-witch’s view of sane rollercoaster design. He continued, “I come here when I need to think, just go round and round. And I figured the best dates are those where you share a part of yourself, you know?”
The fledgling-witch smiled warmly as they reached the peak of the tracks. For a moment they were almost motionless, and she reached out and clasped Amaechi’s hand. She clung to it as they descended.
When it was over, and they were on the ground once more, she realised she wasn’t ready for the evening to end.
“So where now?” she asked.
Amaechi smiled and held out his hand. He led her out of Luna Park, down the beach, along a wooden pier that stretched far into the water. At the end of the pier, a rock breakwater curved further into the bay, and here a crowd gathered.
Amaechi spoke as they joined this crowd. “Watch the water.”
The fledgling-witch looked down to where wavelets lapped against the rocks. “Sure does look like… regular ocean water.”
So she did. Minutes ticked by. Then… “Oh, it’s so cute.”
A tiny penguin was swimming towards them. It had almost reached them when it spooked, turning and darting deeper into the water.
“There’s a colony,” Amaechi said, speaking quietly. “Their nests are hidden between the rocks, and… Oh, look.”
The penguin was back, and this time it hopped from the water. It had a bluish back and white on its belly, and it waddled along one rock before leaping to the next in a move that lacked grace but worked all the same. Then it jumped into the darkness between two rocks and vanished from view. It was merely the vanguard. Dozens of penguins followed, squawking and leaping and fighting sumo-style.
When all was done—when the sun had set and the penguins were in their nests—the fledgling-witch and Amaechi walked back along the breakwater. When they reached the pier, Amaechi sighed.
“I have to tell you something,” he said. “My friends said I should wait, but I can’t get close to someone again just for them to leave when they find out.” Amaechi stared out at the waters. “I have sickle cell.”
The fledgling-witch blinked, trying to remember what she’d learned about this in school. “That’s the one where a single copy of the gene protects you from malaria, but two… stops your blood carrying oxygen efficiently?”
Amaechi nodded. “Yeah, but it’s more than that. My blood cells die fast and they get trapped in my blood vessels. Potential consequences: asthma, strokes, anaemia, blindness, tissue death, bones hollowing out, excruciating agony, and general apocalypse-level bullshit. It’ll knock years off my life, sometimes I need surgery, and every six months or so I have a pain crisis and need so much morphine that I can't open my eyes. And yeah, in return, I have some protection from a disease that barely exists in Australia.”
“That’s…” She trailed off. The thought of Amaechi suffering like this brought tears to her eyes and she blinked them away, clearing her throat before saying, “I’m sorry.”
“It is what it is. But it’s too much for some people, so while I had a lovely evening, I’m going to leave things with you, and if you decide you’d like to meet again, call me.”
“We could do that,” the fledgling-witch replied. “Or… are you free Friday?”
“Then yes, I’m free.”
She smiled, and hand-in-hand, they continued along the pier. That was how it began.
It ended at a bar by the beach, where the breeze turned the scalding of the sun to a pleasant warmth. Sat outside, the fledgling-witch was looking over an ocean that awaited sunset’s dapplings. It should have been perfect, but when Amaechi had called, asking to meet, there’d been heaviness in his voice. Nervous, the fledgling-witch had arrived early, and three empty wine glasses were now arrayed on the table, so that she felt an unpleasant fuzziness when Amaechi sat across from her.
“How are you?” he asked.
Her chest was tight, and she looked down to her hands gripped pale on the glass. “Please, I feel like I’m…” She drew in a shaky breath. “Please say what you came to say.”
When she looked up, Amaechi was looking down in turn. “You and I, we’re not going to work.”
Thousands must hear those words each day; they were just part of life. Yet despair still swept the fledgling-witch.
“What did I do wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Amaechi replied. “It’s just not working.” He stared off across the ocean for a moment, before looking back. “Last week, when I was in hospital, you visited once, but I heard less from you than I normally do. I think… I think seeing me in pain hurt you so much that you couldn’t cope. But I didn’t need you to share my suffering. I needed you to be there. I need someone who can care without falling apart.”
“I can change,” she said.
Amaechi didn't respond. He just looked away, and as the silence stretched on the fledgling-witch realised he was right to doubt. She could change, of course, but it would take time, and Amaechi wasn’t some parable—it wasn’t his job to shepherd her along the path of self-improvement. If they stayed together, she would hurt him again and again. She drew in a deep breath. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
He sighed. “It’s okay. It’s just that I’ve done this before, and I can’t do it again.”
She nodded. Then, because it felt right, she leaned forwards and he did the same, and they kissed. When they drew back, Amaechi smiled sadly as he stood. He opened his mouth, as if to speak, but nothing emerged. Finally, he turned and walked away.
The fledgling-witch remained behind, hours and wine flowing until she found herself staggering from the bar, along the pier, and to the breakwater beyond. It was late, and no-one was there but for a solitary penguin.
“Hello you,” the fledgling-witch said, because she needed to feel that she wasn’t alone. “Do you know what I learned today?”
The penguin ran past without comment, which she took as an invitation to continue.
“I learned that sometimes empathy is the enemy of compassion. I learned that compassion is moving towards another’s pain instead of away. It’s a skill, not a gut reaction.”
The penguin paused at the edge of the path, and the fledgling-witch felt pushed to explain.
“Compassion is action, little penguin,” she said. “Compassion is action.”
The penguin did not reply. Instead, it leapt from the path, vanishing amongst the rocks and leaving the fledgling-witch alone in the darkness.
As the strands of the spell collapsed, and Death emerged from the pair of frame memories, they wondered whether this was what a headache felt like. The human world was complicated: empathy, sympathy, compassion; duty and love and kindness. So many ways to care. Death was only an instant younger than Life, yet they’d never before felt like their thoughts were throbbing against their skull. The feeling faded as they emerged fully from the memory, and—
“Why is that here?” they asked.
On the witch’s lap, a black and white cat was curled, lazily watching Death as it cleaned its paws.
“He belongs to the café,” the witch said. “That’s why people come here: adequate coffee and an adorable cat.”
Death regarded the cat warily. “It shouldn’t have noticed us. Cats see more than humans, but they never see me. So either felines have been deceiving me for millions of years…” They trailed off, worrying for a moment that cats were that sneaky. They shook their head. “…or, you wanted it to sit on your lap so much that you somehow figured out a spell that breached the shroud around me.”
For an instant the witch looked smug, but the expression faded as she gave a nonchalant shrug. “I like cats.”
Death pondered this. “What if, after all that, it sat on someone else’s lap?”
“Oh, I summoned him to me.” The witch lifted her hand to reveal a plate in her lap, covered in the remnants of tuna. “Did you know they sell cat-summoning spells in tins at the supermarket?”
Death had never felt the need to investigate the summoning powers of tuna; in their view, cats were not to be trusted. They suspected that the witch knew this and was using the cat to keep them off balance, so they wouldn’t figure out… what? What was the witch’s plan?
“You can’t win,” they said slowly, “and you must know that.” As they spoke, they found themselves growing more confident. “You’re not planning to survive.”
The witch stared past Death as she recited:
“For every evil under the sun,
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try and find it,
If there be none, never mind it.”
She looked back to Death. “You’ve had billions of years to perfect your art, while I’ve had forty. I cannot win. And even if I can’t bring myself not to mind my death, I accept the reality.” Anger entered her voice for the first time, as she added, “So yes, I don’t expect to survive.”
“Then why all of this?”
“I told you. I’m treasuring every extra second.”
“That’s not all you’re doing,” said Death. “Your spell is changing me. Each time I dwell in a memory, I become a little more like you. It will not change me enough to save you, but it will change me all the same. That is not an accident. You are not just buying yourself time.”
The witch raised an eyebrow. “Then what am I doing?”
Suddenly Death knew. The frame memories—the memories that had shaped the witch—were about kindness. A boy who thought of others, rather than himself. The realisation that sometimes caring meant seeing old things anew. And…
Death looked to the cat. “Compassion is action, little cat. Compassion is action.” They turned to the witch. “You’re not trying to save yourself. You’re hoping to set in motion something that will lead me to one day spare others who do not wish to go.”
“Oh phooey,” said the witch, deadpan, “you caught me. Guess I might as well abandon my fiendish plot.” The cat moved onto cleaning its side, as the witch continued, “And if I might as well give in then how about we make a deal?”
“Let’s see, it’ll take you about four hours to unweave my spell.”
This sounded about right to Death, so they shook their head. “Not so long.” They respected the witch enough to suspect that a trap was lurking. If so, it was better to push back early, before the trap had been sprung.
But the witch simply repeated, “four hours.” She reached down, absently patting the cat. “Here’s my offer: I’ll allow my spell to collapse now, as long as you give three extra hours of life to someone of your choice who isn’t yet ready to go.” She grinned and waggled her eyebrows. “Good deal, right? You gain four hours and only lose three!”
“An excellent deal,” Death said. “Indeed, someone prone to suspicion might wonder whether it’s a little too excellent.”
The witch did not comment, so Death pondered the matter further.
They spoke slowly, testing the words for truth as they uttered them. “Now that I know how your spell works, dwelling in further memories won’t change me, not in the way it did before.”
The witch remained silent, though the cat seemed interested in this suggestion, for it stopped cleaning itself and looked to Death with an unblinking gaze.
Death’s speech slowed further. “If I accept your offer—voluntarily prolonging someone’s life—that will change me more than the spell ever could.”
The witch shrugged. “There’s no remedy for my death, I know that. But can I set in motion something that one day leads you to spare a life…?” She shrugged again.
“The decision might change me,” Death said. “But not enough to stop me doing my duty. I have existed for billions of years. No single choice defines me.”
The witch smiled. “Do you know what humanity looks like at its best?”
The witch let out a surprised-sounding laugh. “Not quite what I meant. The point is that we,” here she indicated the people strolling along the laneway, “are at our best when we act as part of something bigger. The world is so vast and mysterious that none of us can untangle it alone, but we can each play a part. No one person could banish smallpox from the world, yet humanity did. No one person could reach the moon, or harness electricity, or reveal the structure of the atom. Yet humanity did.”
She scratched the cat’s neck and smiled when it stretched out its paws, kneading the air. She continued, “It’s true that I can't make any great difference here, but I don’t need to. I can be part of something bigger. Perhaps I change you a little, and then in a decade, or a century, or a millennium, someone sits across from you and changes you a little more. And again, and again, until one day no one need die until they’re ready to go. Perhaps it’ll take ten of us sitting here, or one hundred, or a million, or a billion. But, guess what? 100 billion humans have walked this planet. If it takes billions to win then we will find those billions.”
Death was familiar with the vastness of life, but they had never thought of it in these terms. If you summed all the lives, humanity had lived for more than a trillion years. A human life might be a mere eyeblink to Death, but Death’s own existence was a mere eyeblink to humanity. Death liked this thought; they didn’t often feel small, and the experience had its novelty. Still—
“These comments seem ill chosen to convince me to take your offer,” Death remarked. “Why say them?”
“Perhaps I’m aspiring to be a Bond villain, monologuing my plan,” the witch replied, stroking the cat and raising an eyebrow. “Or perhaps I just already know you’re going to take the offer.”
She was right, Death realised. They didn’t know whether it was because the spell had changed them, or whether it was simply because the offer was a good one. They just knew that they’d decided to take it.
The realisation weighed them down, because it meant that this—this challenge, this conversation, this life—would soon be over. They wished they could cry like a human might; it had always seemed right that sorrow came with outward signs.
Yet even without tears, the witch seemed to understand. “It’s okay.” She drew in a deep breath. “It’s okay, and I forgive you.”
This did not make them feel better, but they were what they were, so they inclined their head and said, “I accept your offer.”
The witch smiled, though her lips quivered. “Then we have a deal.”
She raised a hand, letting it flow from pattern to pattern as she spoke words that Death had last heard uttered in a city long forgotten by humans. Change rippled across the spell that protected the witch, like ice creeping along silken strands until the web was winter-touched. The witch paused, drew in a deep breath, and then spoke one final word. The spell shattered, its energy dissipating so that the witch’s last great working was reduced to entropy and memory.
The witch looked to Death. “And so, I have fulfilled my part in our accord.”
Death nodded. “Are you ready?”
“Not really, but I don’t suppose that matters. How’s it going to happen, anyway?”
“There won’t be pain,” Death replied.
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
Death was reluctant to say it aloud, but they pushed themselves to do so. “A stroke.”
“Huh. I don’t suppose I’d be the first person to protest that I’m too young for such things.”
“You would not.”
“Then I won’t bother. But perhaps I can use the saved breath to ask a favour instead?”
Death should not have allowed further delay, but they inclined their head. “You may ask.”
“It’s just this: think of me when you’re seated across from the next person who changes you a little—the next person to play a small part in a greater endeavour.” She paused, drawing in a shaky breath. “And remember that however brave they seem, in truth they’re terrified.” She blinked away tears, drew in another breath, and shrugged. “If you can, find them a cat to hold. Everything’s easier with a cat in your lap.”
Death inclined their head once more. “I will do as you ask.” Then they leaned forwards, raising a hand towards the witch. “You might wish to close your eyes.”
“Is that for my sake, or yours?”
Death did not answer. They did not know what the answer was.
The witch’s eyes remained open. “There is beauty in the world and there is a horror,” she said, “and I would not miss a second of the beauty and I will not close my eyes to the horror.”
Death’s touch drew closer, and the witch scratched behind the cat’s ears. Death’s hand brushed the witch’s forehead, and the witch died.
Some weeks later, Death came for a man in a hospital bed. He was eighty-four, shrunken by a fight with cancer, and he was addled by pain and painkillers. Yet he was not ready to go.
“Nathan’s coming,” said the man’s wife. “He’s on his way.”
She repeated it whenever the man awoke, and he smiled each time, squeezing her hand. Once, he whispered, “it’ll be good to see him.”
But this was not to be. Nathan lived hundreds of kilometres away, and the man did not have time to wait. It was not to be, except… maybe Nathan would make it if the man lived for three extra hours. Yes, Death decided, it was time to fulfil their part of the deal.
They settled in to wait, seated on a cheap plastic chair in the corner of the room, passing the time with a book of sudokus they’d found in the gift shop.
An hour passed with no sign of Nathan. On the second hour, the man’s wife answered her phone and said, “Yes, he’s hanging on.” But after three hours, Nathan had still not arrived.
Death sighed as they closed the book. They stood. As they stepped towards the man, they wondered what the witch would say were she there. She would probably try to distract them. Perhaps she would proclaim that it was an atrocity to stop mid-sudoku.
Which it was, of course.
Death sat back down. They would go to the man when they’d finished the sudoku, that was only reasonable. Ten minutes later, with the puzzle done, they thought perhaps that wasn’t right either. Really, they should be tackling the toughest puzzle in the book before putting it down. As it turned out, the toughest puzzle was tough indeed but a commitment was a commitment so they worked away, scrawling and erasing marks until the cells began to fill.
They were almost done when Nathan stepped through the door.
He hurried to the man, sat beside him and clasped his free hand. “Hey Dad, sorry I’m late, as always.”
The man’s eyes flickered open, and though he didn’t speak, his lips widened into a smile.
“I love you, Dad,” Nathan said.
Death did not know whether the man heard, but they knew that he understood.
Death made the final mark in the puzzle, and they stood. They were still hidden from those in the room, so when they spoke it was to the atoms and molecules in the air. “And so,” they said, “I have fulfilled my part in our accord.”
And four hours after the man was due to die, Death did what they had come to do.
Thank you so much for this story, I haven't cried like that for a while. My father passed away earlier this year in the exact moment I came into the room to check on him. The idea that an already-softened death was sitting there, reading, still waiting for me feels really touching.
I'm really sorry about your father. Thanks so much for commenting, and I'm glad you found that image touching.
This story is really beautiful.
(Thank you for writing it!)
Thanks for reading it, and for writing this comment. Critique groups aside, writing tends to be quite a solitary activity, so it's nice to know that someone enjoyed the story and that the words weren't just being written into the void!
This was a beautiful story, and it made me cry. I especially liked the section about compassion. Thanks for sharing it, and for writing it.
Thanks Bella. I'm glad the bit on compassion resonated. Growing up, sheer emotional empathy definitely came more naturally to me than a more directed form of compassion, so the importance of compassion, in particular, is something I've spent time reflecting on over the years.
This is a beautiful story. Just yesterday I remarked that I thought I've lost my ability to cry. Reading this story has restored that ability.
I cried a lot, especially in the ending. Also really liked the concept of the witch doing all this for the sake of other/future people. And, wow, this part:
There are lots of stories where a magic user meets a representation of death. In some of the ones I'm aware of, death is presented very much as a thing to be welcomed. In others, resisting death is presented as being selfish (or, at least, deeply partial). One of the reasons that I wrote the story is because I wanted to see a version of the meeting-Death trope that presented a different way of thinking about death (a way of thinking that will be familiar to most readers of this forum but that I hadn't previously seen in the context of this trope).
Yes, I did notice you're subverting the trope here, it was very well done :)
Do you have links to your other writing? Would love to read more of your work.
I've only recently started trying to get my stories out there, so I'm afraid I don't have anything else online yet. Hopefully I will soon, as I have some stories under consideration at online magazines. If any get accepted, I'll try to remember to post a link in response to this comment.
Any updates on this?
Only a very boring one. No publications so far, though I continue to send things out.
Also, it's perhaps worth noting that it's unclear to me that people who enjoyed the story posted here will necessarily enjoy my other stories. I have different motives in writing different things, and I think that one consequence of this is that different stories I write might appeal to different audiences.
But in any case, if I do get something published I'll post a link here and people can decide for themselves whether they enjoy it!
Thanks for the reply!
This story is so beautiful and motivating, everyone I sent it to cried but loved it.
I read this story into the EA Forum podcast HERE
The Nonlinear Library also has a reading of this story. I listened to their version (Spotify link and really liked it.
I also listened to a few minutes of your version afterwards to compare and my conclusion is that I prefer the Nonlinear Library's version by a significant margin. The quality of the text-to-speech software they used by the Nonlinear Library is the best I've listened to.
And to be clear, I'm mentioning my preference for their version to your reading here just in case there is anyone else there who hasn't tried the Nonlinear Library's readings yet due to having a cached belief that TTS is still really bad, but who actually would enjoy the quality of their readings a lot / enough to want to listen to their content more in the future.
Updated: the audio was a bit low, I boosted the volumes
Cool, thanks for doing this! I haven't had a chance to listen yet (my writing time is currently being spent on writing something new), but I'm glad that someone is doing podcasts for forum posts. For me, at least, I find it a lot easier to find the time to listen than the time to read.
It might be helpful for your writing to “listen to how people hear it”? (Well not people, just one person, but still…)
Yeah, that sounds plausible. When editing, I find it really helpful to read my writing out loud. Listening to someone else read it might have many of the same benefits, and some additional ones besides.
The time of a single witch or wizard trying to snare death in their dying spell was over a decade ago. Such techniques could only be used by a skilled witch or wizard upon their deaths, and such events were hard to plan for ethically.
Now a team of thaumotological engineers laboured over a contrivance of electronics and crystals. This device would be slid under a bed of a terminally ill patient. Slotted into the centre were a handful of cells in a dish, taken from the dying patient themselves.Theoretical research had been done, software had been written hundreds of different strategies and counter strategies had been tested in simulations. Death was far faster than any human, but the right engineering could be faster than death.
If you had walked through the corridor of the Royal Infirmary, you would have seen very little out of place compared to a normal hospital. One dying patient had slightly more sensors on their body than usual, the wires running under the bed. Small puffs of cool cloud flowed out one side of the bed as nitrogen gas was vented from the cooling system.
Death approached the bed. They felt a brief disorienting pulse of magic, just enough to throw them off balance for a few seconds. Shaking his head at the crudeness of the supposed trap, death claimed another soul.
Half an hour later, a man arrived at the hospital. He slid the box out from under the bed. Opening the top, he observed the contents. Most of the box was full of slag, solidified but still hot. In one insulated corner is an SSD chip full of encrypted data. The password, 100KB of quantum randomness unique to this particular box and stored offsite. He plugs the SSD chip into his laptop and uploads the data back to the main control room. They have significantly improved their sensors from last time and have several gigs of new scans and telemetry.
Nice! In many ways, a very different style to what I wrote, but I like to think it shares something of the same spirit (perhaps representing something of a logical next step).
What a great and beautifully written story! Would it be ok if I took a crack at translating it into Spanish for the Spanish-speaking EA community?
Seconding this for the Italian community, even if I expect something written this well to be extremely hard to translate
I'm glad you both enjoyed it. I'm fine with people translating it for non-commercial purposes, so please do feel free to do this. If you end up doing so then it would be great if you posted a link here so that people could find the translation more easily (and, assuming I remember at the time, I'll edit the post to include links to the translations).
Thank you! I'll be sure to post a link here if I manage to produce a decent translation that captures the essence of the original. It'll be quite a challenge, but I'll give it a try.
This paragraph confused me:
“I learned that sometimes empathy is the enemy of compassion. I learned that compassion is moving towards another’s pain instead of away. It’s a skill, not a gut reaction.”
What is "moving towards another's pain"? Given the context, it feels like she should be saying that compassion is alleviating pain, not feeling it.
You're right that there's something that doesn't work about this. Thanks for the helpful feedback.
That said, I'm not going to make edits here right now, because I haven't managed to figure out an edit I'd be happy with. I'll keep mulling, and perhaps I'll make edits at some future time.
Just to explain the intention of the line, "moving towards another's pain instead of away" is intended to ambiguously refer both: (a) to adopting a mindset that allows you to mentally grapple with someone else's pain without psychologically flinching away; and (b) to behaving in a way that aims at ameliorating the pain rather than physically fleeing.
As you note, the downside of ambiguity is that the phrase might either be unclear or it might have additional undesired disambiguations (perhaps reading as if it means "feeling a pain more deeply rather than less").
Anyway, thanks again. Will think on this further.
Do you have any writing elsewhere?
Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. No other writing yet, but a few things are under consideration, so if they get accepted I'll try to remember reply to this comment with a link.
I enjoyed this. Would seem to do well as an argument for preventing existential risk from Scheffler's 'the human project' point of view, ie the continuation of transgenerational undertakings that we each contribute a tiny piece to, as opposed to the maximizing total utility approach. Persistence of the whole seems to have emergent merit beyond the lives of the individuals.
On the other hand it also made me think of the line Chigurh says in 'No Country for Old Men' > "If the rule that you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?" Rule = eg not eating meat, being compassionate etc. [note, I believe there IS use in the rules, but the line still haunts me]
So this is thing I keep telling everyone that I wish existed - “a pale blue dot” but make it EA. Absolutely breathtaking . Thank you for writing this
Hi there, I'm a writer and I critique stories I like. The intro is solid, interesting, beautiful. The first memory gave me such feels that I had to get up and walk around in order to process them. And then we get to... this.
Pardon, but. Did Ovid not just speak with Death's voice? Serious philosophical question.
Even setting aside questions regarding the definition of identity and personhood, this is a setting with at least one ancient magekiller robot and/or anthropomorphic personification running around, where magic appears to be a vocational skill, and where magic can certainly encode consciousness.
Even if the afterlife looks more like 'suspended animation in the akashic library' than 'personal minecraft server', it seems deeply premature to conclude that there isn't one.
(I will be editing in the rest of my review as I continue reading.)
Thanks for reading and for taking the time to write up your thoughts.
One thing to note is that there are presumably things that witch knows that the reader does not. So while the story itself might not give us enough detail to conclude that there is no afterlife in the story world, the witch may have additional information that allows her to reach this conclusion with some fair confidence.
Oh, that's clearly what it's meant to come across as. But to me it reads more like a Materialist Immortalism sermon delivered by someone who really ought to know better in context.
Also I'm a little irritated that Death has apparently literally never felt the need to justify itself before, but does this time. Human history is deep, like 'the time of Christ until now is like the most recent ten percent' deep. How, among the untold billions who have died, has Death never encountered a mage capable of making it experience shame and/or guilt until after Melbourne came into existence?
Did magic only recently become possible? Is the Death we see younger than King Arthur? Is magic a skillset so encouraging of hubris that this witch is literally the first magic-user in history to both desire endless life and have a clue that repentance is important?
I love the frame idea of a debate with Death while a mage tries to imprison it, but if it's a frame for a philosophical debate, the philosophy could use a lot more development.
This was spectacular. Compassion being a skill not a gut reaction is a quote I just shared with friends. Please continue writing, I believe many people will benefit from it.
Absolutely brilliant :)
-> would not miss
Thanks. Fixed (and I took the chance to also fix a few other minor bits and pieces).