4710 words, short story
On the Banks of the River Lex
Death lay under the water-tower on a sagging rooftop, watching the slow condensation of water along the tower’s metal belly. Occasionally one of the water beads would grow pregnant enough to spawn a droplet, which would then fall around—and occasionally onto—Death’s forehead. He had counted over seven hundred hits in the past few days.
Sleep appeared and crouched beside Death, looking hopeful. “You look bored. I don’t suppose you’d care for a little oblivion?”
“No, thank you,” said Death. He was always scrupulously polite, to counter his reputation. He waited until another drop fell—a miss, alas—and then turned his head to regard Sleep. “You’re looking a little detached yourself.”
At the refusal, Sleep had sighed and sat down beside him. “I thought I would be all right,” she said. “I should be all right. Animals sleep, even plants in their way. But it just isn’t the same.”
Death reached out to touch her hand. It was his own silent offer.
“No thanks,” she said, though she did take his hand. He was glad. Others rarely touched him, if they could help it. By this gesture he understood: not yet.
He sat up. The sun had just risen above the city. Clouds like strings of pearls girded the sky. A flock of tiny birds—Death guessed hummingbirds, migrating back from the south—passed through the rust-rimmed hole in the Met Life Building.
“What’s that?” asked Sleep.
Death followed her finger and saw a cluster of flowers. The rooftop on which he lay was thick with meadowgrass, and one very determined ailanthus grew in the dust and silt of one corner. There were many flowers amid the meadowgrass, which was why Death liked this roof so much. He would be sorry when it finally caved in.
“Just a daisy,” he replied.
“No, beyond that.”
They got up and walked around the roof’s holes for a better look. Beyond the daisy, fighting its way up through the grass in the shadows of the roof-wall, was a flower Death had never seen before. Its shape was something like that of a crocus, but its roots were shallow, like all rooftop flora. There was no bulb. And its petals were a lush, deep matte black.
“That’s different,” said Sleep.
Death crouched to peer at the flower, then reached out to stroke the satin softness of one petal. Not just different. New.
Something tickled his cheek. He reached up to brush it away and found his fingers wet. Glancing back at the water-tower, he wondered how he could’ve missed his count.
Death liked to walk across bridges. For this reason he had claimed a home for himself relatively far from the center of town. This was in a big ugly gray stone of a building that had once been a factory, and then had been colonized by artists, and then by trend-obsessed young professionals. Now it was ruled by cats. Death passed perhaps a dozen of them on his way down the stairs, including one mother briskly carrying a mouse and trailed by two gangling adolescents. As usual they ignored his presence, merely slinking out of the way as he passed. On the rare occasions when one would deign to look at him, he nodded in polite greeting. Sometimes they even nodded back.
He had attempted, once, to entice a kitten to live with him. This was something he knew humans had done. But he kept forgetting to bring food, and because he did not sleep, the kitten was unable to cuddle with him at night. After a few days the kitten had left in a huff. He still saw its descendants around the building, and felt lingering regret.
The Williamsburg Bridge had not yet begun to warp and sag like the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. Death suspected there was some logical reason for this—perhaps the Williamsburg had been renovated more recently, or built more sturdily in the first place. But in his heart, Death believed that he helped to keep the bridge intact. By walking across it, he gave the bridge purpose. For all things created by humankind, purpose was the quintessence of existence.
So Death walked into town every day.
There was much activity in town when Death arrived.
“The twins have opened a Starbucks at Union Square!” said a stranger, when Death stepped off the bridge on Delancey. He nodded in pleasant response to this, though he was not certain what a Starbucks was or why the twins would have bothered with it.
Still, everyone seemed so excited about the Starbucks that Death wandered uptown, curious. Most of the streets were empty, except for cats and a few coyotes. The coyotes were not as bold as the cats; they mostly tried to keep out of sight. At 14th Street and Avenue A, Death found the Dragon King of the Western Ocean playing bagpipes on the corner stoop. He sat on the gnarled root of a young oak that was slowly crushing an ancient, spindly cherry, and destroying the sidewalk in the process. Skirting around the growing sinkhole, Death sat down to listen until the Dragon King was done.
“Thanks,” the Dragon King said. “It’s good to have listeners.”
“You’re very good,” said Death.
“Always wanted to learn this thing. It’s just so ugly, you have to love it. I looked all over the mainland, even in Hong Kong, and couldn’t find one. Had to come here, finally. Thank little apples for the Chinese Diaspora.” The Dragon King set down the bagpipes carefully. “Are you going to Starbucks?”
“I was thinking about it, yes. Are you?”
“Course not. I hate coffee. People used to offer it to me all the time—nasty, vile stuff. Now, a Krispy Kreme doughnut? Got one of those once, thought I would die of joy.” He let out a wistful sigh.
“I’ve never tried coffee.” People, in the time before, had made very different offerings to Death.
“You probably won’t have any today, either. Mawu only found a few bricks of the freeze-dried stuff; I bet they’ll run out by noon.”
“Oh.” Death felt mildly disappointed.
“Let’s go anyhow. I’m bored.”
They walked over to Union Square, where as usual the south-end steps were filled with worshippers. Not people, for all that most of them had adopted the forms of people in homage. Just others of their kind who were willing and had the strength to assist those in need. But this time the line around the square, trailing from the Starbucks all the way to the collapsed bank on the opposite corner, was long enough to rival the crowd on the steps.
The Dragon King clapped Death on the shoulder. “See what I mean? Good luck getting a taste.”
“Anything new is worth trying,” Death replied with a shrug.
The Dragon King sighed. “I know you don’t need it, man, but you really ought to try a service.” He nodded toward the square. “Way better than coffee.”
“Others need it more than me.” They both fell silent, embarrassed, as a thin, waiflike creature shuffled past. It was difficult to tell if this one was male or female or one of the androgynes, because its clothing was ragged and its face too hollow for easy recognition. Its gaze was fixed on the square. As Death and the Dragon King watched, the creature crossed the street; the worshippers there opened their ranks at once to admit the newcomer.
“Damn,” said the Dragon King. “I think that was one of the Bodhisattvas. I used to know all those guys. Girls. Them.”
Death nodded, solemn. He had known them too.
The Dragon King glanced at him, guiltily. “Look, I know I don’t need it either. The oceans are still around, the rain still falls. But it’s not the same, you know?”
“I know that,” Death said, a little taken aback. “You don’t have to justify it to me.”
“Damn straight I don’t.” The Dragon King glared at him for a moment; in the distance, clouds rumbled with faint thunder. But almost as quickly as the Dragon’s anger had come, it seemed to fade, and he sighed. “Well . . . anyway. Thanks for listening to the music.”
The Dragon King then crossed the street to join the throng on the steps. Death watched him for a moment, contemplating. They would help the ones who needed it most first, but beyond that they helped everyone, offering worship in whatever form necessary—blood, prayer, sex—for hour-long increments. If not for them and other groups like them, many would have given up, or faded away, by now.
Would they die for him, if he asked it? Death wondered idly.
Then he turned and went to the end of the Starbucks line. They ran out of coffee before he got halfway there.
But the twins had attempted another experiment, which Death did get to try: cookies. He sat at one of the small tables in the crowded cafe, and peered dubiously at the plate that Lise had set in front of him.
“They’re good,” she said.
“They’re green,” he replied.
“That’s because we made the flour from crabgrass seeds,” she said. “It makes them a little bitter, but otherwise they’re good. Look, real raisins.”
Wild grapevines had overrun Brooklyn Heights. “Ah. As I recall, Mawu did make passable wine for libations, once.”
“Yes, the bottles that didn’t explode or turn to vinegar. He’s still working on the technique. But raisins are easy. Grow some grapes and ignore them. Try it.”
Death picked up the cookie and nibbled. It was, to his great surprise, good. He said as much, and meant it.
“You don’t have to sound so shocked,” Lise said, annoyed. She stormed away behind the counter and resumed work on some contraption that she must have rigged to bake the cookies. She and her twin brother, Mawu, were good at creating new things. Almost as good as people had been.
“I need to talk to you,” said an angel, coming over to sit across from him. She did not ask to sit, but angels did not ask permission.
“Of course,” he said. Lise glared at him from behind the dusty old counter, and he remembered the ritual of sitting in a cafe. Small talk was necessary before business could be conducted. It was respectful to treat the twins’ endeavor in the spirit it was meant. “How have you been? Is, er, is life good for you?” He had not meant that the way it came out. Hopefully she would not think he wanted to kill her.
“The life of mankind has passed on, and we are but shadows in its wake,” she said truthfully, ignoring the polite fiction that the ritual demanded. He winced. At the counter, Lise sucked her teeth. “I came to tell you that the Lex has overflowed its banks. I talked to Ogun; the pumping system is completely unsalvageable. Took everything he had to keep it going this long. He thinks the entire Upper East Side will be underwater within a year.”
Death spat out a raisin-pit, and fished in his mouth for a bit of grass-seed hull that seemed to have gotten stuck in his teeth. He did not have to have teeth, he supposed, but he generally liked them, except at times like this. “Why is that a problem?”
“The English Nursery Rhymes. They all live on the Upper East Side.”
“Why can’t they move?”
She looked at him with annoyance, though this was mild, her being an angel. He thought she might be Gabriel; the rest were less tolerant of those outside their circle. “There are more kindergartens and schools in that part of town than any other.”
Which explained why the Rhymes had claimed that neighborhood. Death considered. “What about Park Slope?” This was a neighborhood in Brooklyn not far from his home in Williamsburg. He remembered visiting there often, in the old days. It had been a hotbed of gang activity once, but later, before the people had gone, there had been many children.
“They can’t make it that far. They’re not like the rest of us that had thousands of years and dozens of cultures to strengthen them. To get to Brooklyn, they’d have to travel through several neighborhoods that didn’t have many kids, and across the East River. It’s too much for them.”
Death frowned, a slow suspicion eating into his enjoyment of the cookies. He sat back, silent for a long moment, and gazed at her until she sighed and said it out loud.
“You need to help them,” she said. She spoke softly. A rarity. “It’s worse to wither away. You know that.”
“My help is always available. To those who ask.”
“They’re children! They sing and rhyme and bounce around—they don’t know to ask!”
He remained silent, not bothering to point out the obvious. The Nursery Rhymes weren’t children, any more than he was a man, or she a woman. There were no more children.
“It isn’t right.” She looked away. Her hand lay on the table. Her fingers tightened into a fist, then relaxed, then tightened again. Her wings, which dragged the floor behind her chair, fluffed and settled. “Letting them suffer when they don’t have to. You know it’s not right.”
It was not. Inadvertently he thought of the Bodhisattva he had seen, shambling its way toward survival. “They might want to try.”
“They don’t think that far, Death. They’re full of nonsense. But they suffer as much as the rest of us. It’s amazing they’ve managed to hang on this long.”
He shook his head slowly, but sighed. “I’ll speak to them,” he said at last. “I’ll try to make them understand, and then ask what they want. Life—even its shadow—deserves that much consideration.” He leveled a hard look at her. “And I will abide by their decision.”
She nodded slowly. “That’s all I ask.” With a heavy sigh, she got up, and finally yielded to propriety. “Thank you. Er, have a nice day.” At this, Lise looked pleased.
Death finished his cookie and got up. He walked uptown, which took the rest of the day. By the time he reached the Upper East Side, night had begun to fall. He traveled more slowly along the banks of the river, because the sidewalks and streets were treacherous here. The water flowing through the subway lines had undermined the whole area, and it was obvious that this part of the island would soon be reclaimed by the sea. But at 66th Street he found a downed Victorian turret fetched up against several cars, which formed a precarious bridge. After climbing over this, Death made his way further north, following the old sense that had always led him to wherever he needed to be.
He found the Nursery Rhymes in the garden of an ancient school. Though it was pitch dark, they were still running about and playing, chasing fireflies, their peals of laughter making Death feel lonely and nostalgic. There were peacocks and peahens in the garden too, some of them roosting sleepily in the trees as he passed underneath. They cooed challenges at him, less indifferent than his building’s cats. But then he stopped, surprised to find one peacock down on the ground, directly in his path. As he stared at it, he realized it was not blue and green like the others. Its head was a fierce, iridescent red, shading to gold on the neck and below. When it suddenly fanned and shivered its great tail, he saw that all the eyespots were a baleful, white-rimmed black.
Then, as if satisfied that he had noticed its strangeness, the peacock dropped its tail and flew away.
When the children ran over to Death, still giggling and delighted to meet someone new, he could not help noticing how thin they were.
One day Death began to feel restless, which was strange. He was Death, the inevitability of all living things. He should never have felt restless. Yet he did.
He wondered: was his dissolution beginning, as had happened to so many others? But there was still death in the world, all around him, every day. The cats in his building. The rats and mice and birds that they fed on. The plants that grew from cracks in the concrete. His own kind, when they faltered. Yet he also knew the truth: that death might exist in the absence of humankind, but not Death.
He felt no weaker. There was no perceptible thinning of his substance. But something troubled him, nevertheless.
He began to walk, picking a direction at random. South. The streets in Brooklyn were less damaged and flooded than those in Manhattan, but there were other problems, especially in the poorer neighborhoods. He had to go slowest in Flatbush, which had been in a state of disrepair long before the end of humanity. The sinkholes and downed facades got so bad that eventually he simply willed himself over to Kensington. (He preferred to walk, but physicality was not always convenient.) Strolling along tree-lined streets and gazing at brownstones that still looked as beautiful as the year they’d been built was marvelous, though it felt a bit like cheating.
Because Death did not tire, he walked well into the night, and reached Coney Island by morning. It was nice to watch the sunrise from the beach. The ocean hummed with its own cycles, hardly changed by the presence or absence of humanity. He spent an hour or two just listening to the surge and sough of the waves, and remembering all that had been. He was not like many of his fellows, who were confined to the places where they had been conceived and nurtured. Where there was life, there was death, and where there was death, was his domain. He was one of the few who could, if he wished, travel the whole world. It was good to be Death.
When the sun was well-risen, he turned away from the sagging rollercoaster and the midway, with its stands full of mildewed lumps that had once been stuffed animals. The Aquarium stood open, the glass of its doors long since shattered and washed away in the hurricane that had hit the city not long after its abandonment. Inside the Alien Stingers exhibit—the only building still standing—Death found mostly darkness and silence. He moved quietly between the still, dark tanks, looking for nothing in particular. Just walking. Listening. He sensed now that something had drawn him to this place. He didn’t know what, but he knew this: it was a sensation he had not felt since before people had gone. That in itself was enough to merit his attention.
As Death reached the south end of the building, he found that it had been torn open by long-gone wind and rain, leaving a great, gaping, splintered hole. Debris, itself mostly buried in sand with the passage of time, paved the way across the tumbled wall of the sea lion tank, between the manmade hills (now flat) which had bordered the site, and through the crazily leaning pillars which were all that remained of the Boardwalk. The building’s guts trailed away in a clear path all the way down to the water.
Here, Death found something odd. A series of peculiar, curlicued scuff-marks moved along this trail of lathing and salt-rotted wood, cutting across the windblown drifts of sand. Following them, he found that the marks petered out a few dozen meters from the water’s edge, washed away by the tide-line. Backtracking instead, he found them continuing into the aquarium—but where the sand gave way to the building’s cheap, nearly-indestructible carpeting, there were no marks for him to follow.
Death did not have much imagination. He did not require it. He was patient, however, so lacking any other means of fathoming the mystery, he sat down beside the trail. The marks were fresh, after all. Perhaps whatever had made them would eventually return.
And finally, as dusk fell, he saw movement down near the beach. An animal, dragging itself out of the surf. At first he thought that it was another new thing, like the black flower, and the red peacock. Then it drew closer, and belatedly he realized it was just a small, dark blue octopus, walking its way along the lathing and sand. As it came, he saw that it carried an old blue plastic cup that read SLURPEE in faded letters, balanced carefully atop two of its tentacles. Water sloshed over the cup’s lip now and again, though it was clear the creature was making an effort not to spill the liquid. It used the other six tentacles to walk, Death saw, leaving behind that familiar curling pattern.
Now and again the creature stopped, set the cup on some flat surface or against a rock, and thrust its head into the water. Death watched it breathe in and out, its color flickering momentarily lighter blue, like the cup. When it had finished this procedure, it withdrew from the cup and resumed walking.
It paused when Death rose to follow it into the Aquarium. He stopped when it did, and felt himself actively considered by the creature’s strange bar-pupilled eyes. When he did not approach more closely, however, the creature finally resumed its laborious march.
Inside, they both proceeded to one of the building’s vast, double-walled tanks. Here, unlike the rest of the tanks—most of which no longer had any need of his services—this one still flickered in glowing, vibrant blue. There was a hole in the tank’s uppermost corner, where the glass met the plaster of its display case, and something had cleared away the killing algae from the water’s surface. Above the tank was a skylight in the aquarium’s ceiling, which let in plenty of the setting sun’s rays. Thanks to this, Death could see that the tank was still halfway full with water, the water-mark just at his eye level. The water had gone murky, the glass speckling with age and wear—but beyond the speckling, he could see many small things darting and moving.
Before he could identify this, the octopus stopped beside this tank, then laboriously climbed the glass wall, still carting the cup. It poured the water into the tank, dropped the cup—Death had already noticed many other cups, cans, and coconut shells littering the floor here—then wriggled through the gap in the glass. Here it paused, clinging to the glass above the water-line, gazing through a clear patch at Death. Again, Death felt himself considered.
Then one of the darting things in the water flicked up and attached itself to the plastic too, and he understood. It was a tiny copy of the larger octopus—a baby. There were likely hundreds of them, if not thousands, in the tank.
Death leaned close to the glass, looking the elder octopus in its—her—odd little eye. He considered her in return.
“Shall I kill you?” he asked. “Is that what you want?”
He felt her deep weariness. This was the way of things, he knew then: the mother died, her flesh granting the young a last bit of strength so that they might survive. It had happened for countless generations already, since the destruction of the Aquarium had provided her ancestors with such a convenient, safe nursery for their young. How many more octopi had survived their youth, thanks to this happenstance, than there would have been in the wild? How many more adults had learned to leave the ocean, carrying their water with them as they found safer shelter somewhere along the empty seaside?
The octopus did not answer. She could not speak. Yet he knew, because he was what he was, that she understood what he was. She was not a red peacock or a black flower, yet she was, in a similar way, a new thing. Or an old thing, taking advantage of a new opportunity. It did not matter. Of such opportunities, embraced and exploited, were new things born.
One of the mother octopus’s wet, attenuated tentacles curled over the edge of the broken glass, twitching slightly. Nodding, Death touched this. A moment later the octopus turned gray and dropped into the water. The tank roiled with movement as her children swarmed in for a last loving taste of her.
The small octopus that had leapt out of the water, and which had continued to cling to the glass, observing, while Death killed its mother, remained where it was. Death nodded to it, solemn, then turned to go.
Movement caught his eye. The small octopus had begun to scurry up toward the hole in the glass. Death stopped.
“No,” he said, recalling that its mother had not come ashore ’til dusk, with the tide. “Wait until morning, near dawn. Bring water with you.”
The baby octopus stopped, its sides heaving with the effort to breathe out of the water. He had no idea whether it understood him. If it did, it would wait, and have that much better a chance of surviving the trek to the ocean. Perhaps a few of its siblings would attempt and survive the journey too, and in turn they would pass on the necessary skill, and the intelligence to use it, to the young who came after them. And in time, with luck and other opportunities . . .
It was how people had begun. It was how all new things began. He understood this, the life and death of species, as he had always understood the life and death of individuals. But perhaps he had been too preoccupied with the latter, as a result failing to notice the former.
The little octopus detached itself from the side of the tank and dropped back into the water, darting in for its own share of the mother’s corpse. Death felt himself ignored and forgotten—but that was all right. The young did not often think about Death, but Death was no less eternal for their disinterest.
He smiled with the realization that some concepts would always be the same, no matter who conceptualized them. Still . . . lifting his hand, he contemplated the shape and structure of tentacles. They would be very versatile, he decided, though they would take some getting used to.
Then he turned and headed for home.
A few days later, Death went to Union Square. He walked over to the worshippers on the south-end steps, and asked them what to do.
“Just . . . think about the one you’re trying to help,” said the Dragon King, who had been looking at him oddly since his arrival. “That’s all any of us really needs, y’know. But if you don’t mind me saying so, buddy, I never expected to see you here. I figured—” He paused, abruptly looking embarrassed. “Well, I figured you didn’t mind seeing the rest of us crash and burn.”
Death understood. Others usually assumed worse. “Death comes on its own,” he said. “I don’t have to do anything to facilitate it. But everyone deserves a chance to try and survive.” Even us, he had decided.
“Well, sure. But . . . ” The Dragon King scratched his long, curling moustache, finally letting out a weak laugh. “Man, you’re weird.”
Death smiled. It pleased him to be called “man,” though eventually there would be other names and other manifestations for him. He would not be the same, filtered through such different imaginations. None of them would be—but it was now important to him that his fellows hold on, take the opportunity to adapt if they could. The world had not ended, after all. The stuff of which he and his kind had been made, had not vanished. The thinker did not matter, so long as thought remained.
“Thank you,” Death said, and then he clapped the Dragon King on the shoulder. (The Dragon King started and threw him a puzzled look.) “Now tell me: are bagpipes easy to learn?”
While he still had fingers, he would need a way to pass the time.
N. K. Jemisin is a Brooklyn author whose short fiction and novels have been multiply nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula, shortlisted for the Crawford and the Tiptree, and have won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Her speculative works range from fantasy to science fiction to the undefinable; her themes include the intersections of race and gender, resistance to oppression, and the coolness of Stuff Blowing Up. She is a member of the Altered Fluid writing group, and a graduate of the Viable Paradise writing workshop. Her latest novel, The Shadowed Sun, was published in June 2012 from Orbit Books, and she's hard at work on a new series due to begin in 2014.