When Death comes, he carries a tool for harvesting grain slung over his shoulder, his skeletal form swallowed by a billowing black cloak. And she descends from the heavens astride a magnificent horse, blood-flecked armor glinting in the light of a battlefield sunset, to carry a fallen warrior away to an everlasting feast. And he leads the way to the Scales of Judgment with his human arms stretched wide in welcome, while his scavenger’s eyes stare down the length of his jackal’s muzzle, weighing and hungry. And she waits—?either hideously ugly or unspeakably beautiful depending on the way you lived your life—on the far side of a bridge that is either a rainbow or the Milky Way or both, a span that is either treacherous and thin as a single plank of wood, or wide and sturdy and safe, whichever you have earned. They are sparrows and owls, dolphins and bees, dogs and ravens and whippoorwills. They are the familiar faces of ancestors who have gone before, they are luminous beings of impossible description, and they are the random firings of synapses as the fragile spark of life fades to nothing. He is a moment all must experience. She is a figure to be both feared and embraced. They are the concept that rules all others; a constant, like entropy, like the speed of light. Death is both an end and a transition. Simultaneously a crossing over and the guide on that journey, one that is unique to each individual and yet the same for all. Death is able to be every one of these and more—all at once without conflict or contradiction—because death is the end of all conflicts, is beyond contradictions. Both nothing and everything.
The only thing Death has never been is lonely.
One of those many contradictions, a young woman named Renaissance Raines, waited for death in a neighborhood dive bar named Pal’s, scratching the label off a warm half-finished bottle of Abita with her thumbnail, unnoticed and sober and bored. She sat in one of the high-backed swivel chairs at the long bar that took up most of the main room, facing a back-lit altar of liquor bottles that glowed beneath a couple of flat-screen TVs and the chalkboards advertising drink specials. The wall behind her held a few small, two-person tables that were empty in the early afternoon but wouldn’t stay that way for much longer. Bright blue walls rose to a high orange ceiling illuminated by lights that tapered down to points in a way that reminded Renai of spinning tops. The life of the bar shifted around her—the electronic jingle and chirp of the digital jukebox in the corner, the brash, too-loud laughter coming from the handful of mostly white college kids playing air hockey in the back, the warmer, subdued conversation between a quartet of locals, an older black couple, a white woman holding a tiny, trembling dog, and a middle-aged Native American guy bellied up to the bar, a swirl of cigarette smoke in the air, the soft whir of ceiling fans overhead—and though breath filled her lungs and blood pulsed in her veins, she was as a ghost to all of it. She spoke to no one, shared no one’s companionable silence, sent no texts to check on anyone’s arrival, made no attempts to catch a stranger’s eye. If anyone looked at Renai long enough to really see her—her dark brown skin taut with youth and free of laugh or frown lines, her full cheeks that dimpled with the slightest of smiles, her loose coils of hair, usually allowed to hang down along her jawline but today pulled and wound into a bun on each side of her head, her slender runner’s frame lost in the depths of a thick leather jacket despite the heat that still hadn’t relaxed its grip even in late October—they’d wonder if she was old enough to drink the beer in her hand. She knew nobody would, though.
Most people didn’t really seem to notice her at all these days. She hadn’t gotten carded when she came in, no one had stopped her when she’d slipped behind the counter and taken a beer from the cooler. If she took her hand off the bottle and left it on the counter, the bartender would scoop it up and drop it in the trash. If she switched chairs to sit right next to the locals—?or even leaned in between them—so long as she didn’t touch them, they’d keep talking as if she wasn’t there. If she interrupted, if she tapped someone on the shoulder, if she shattered one of the TVs with a thrown glass and shrieked with all her might, they’d see her, briefly, giving her the unfocused, confused look of a person shaken awake.