When Death comes to your door you are dreaming. It’s the usual nightmare: you’re at the Bank. Clients are lined up to the door. They’re furious. Your assistant is quelling them, her cherubic face glowing. She hangs their camel coats, settles them into the ox blood wing-backs, offers them coffee, and smooths their ruffled feathers. One-by-one you shepherd them in, sit them down, chat them up and document all the sins the Bank has committed. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea fucking culpa.
You charm, you mollify and you reimburse until there’s only one client left: a woman in grey Chanel with black trim. You stride across the marble in your dark suit beaming your radiant I’m here for you smile. Inside you’re predicting her handshake. Cool and fleeting, you’d bet, papery. Yours will be lingering; earnest; magnanimous.
Then, just as you clasp her slender hand, there’s tiny spark and the lights flicker out. The door locks click. The red eye on the silver urn blinks out. The Xerox wheezes, sputters, then dies. The hard drives sigh themselves into silence. The monitors go black. You can practically hear the unsaved transactions expiring.
You turn back to the client, still pressing her sinewy flesh. Is that a smirk? Your telephone is pealing but you can’t answer. You can’t take your eyes off of her. In fact, you can’t even speak. The floor’s gone glacial. There’s a weight on your chest. If only you could let go you’d wake up.
But your hand won’t respond. The phone goes on tolling and when you finally wake it’s not the phone at all but that ding-dong-ding-dong Westminster chime doorbell that Madeleine insisted on.
And, you’ve stopped breathing.
Sweat rolls off you. Your hands shake. Your mouth waters. Your gut heaves. The pain! Oh God. You’re going to puke. But you don’t. Instead you just peel yourself away from your body, like wallpaper with an industrial steamer. It seems natural to leave yourself behind.
You slip out from under the goose down duvet, pad across the Afghan rug, and glide down Louis XIV staircase. You open the door expecting Madeleine’s rose garden, the arc of the driveway, the Range Rover. Instead, you see a farmstead surrounded by forest: moonlit fallows silvered with snow. There’s a rock wall, and, in the distance: a smithy. The hammer echoes rhythmically. A ghost of smoke struggles to rise from the chimney then gives up and slides back down to the pasture. And on the field stone landing before you, Death stands weeping.
Death looks to be about twelve years old. He’s covered head to toe with soot but otherwise naked. From one small hand trails a sweep’s broom. It’s wet. He’s dragged it across the fields. And there’s a wound between his legs. He’s been castrated. Though you know exactly who he is, you urge him inside to the heat and the light of the chandelier. As you shut the door he apologizes for his sobbing… and for the stench.
And the stench is really something. When you were ten years old, you found a lifeless mole frozen in the gutter. The mole had smooth auburn hair, a pink star-nose and fine, sharp, claws. You took him – you assumed he was male – up to your room where you made a casket of a White Owl Cigar box. You lined it with layers of soft, moss-green tissue from the Christmas drawer and you covered the mole with blanket of carmine velvet from Mum’s sewing box. It was plush and gave the mole a dignified air which seemed appropriate. He was the king of moles (or at least the chief). He slept with you that night and you took him to school in the morning stowing him in the chamber of your wooden desk.
By the time the noon bell rang and you were removing the wax paper from your egg sandwich, the Grade 5 classroom stank of rot. Miss. Foster was mortified. She used the PA system to call for Mr. Stanley, the Principal and the custodian arrived with a brush, a dustpan and pouch of green, scented sweeping compound. You were sent promptly home – without the mole chief or his regal coffin. You note that Death smells considerably stronger than the mole because of the urine, perspiration and the unexpected wound.
You read somewhere – The Economist? – that a Victorian sweep was often a street urchin: a bastard or orphan who crawled the tight chimneys of the upper class for tuppence a week until the soot worked its way through the soft folds of his scrotum. After a few years of this, the sweep’s small testicles would spawn cancer which grew and putrefied. The mass was excised with a quick, cold snip and things sewn back up again with a few catgut stitches. No anesthetic required.
This thought fills you with pity. You pick Death up and carry him gently to the guest bathroom. You don’t question whether this is wise or unwise. You draw a warm bath in the claw footed tub. You check the water temperature with your wrist just like Mum did for your infant brother. Death is shivering. He’s so weak you have to help him in.
You scrub off the smut and ash with a loofah and a bar of oatmeal soap. You cleanse his crow-black hair with the tea berry shampoo. Death giggles at the sweet scent. You soak the wound and then use your bare hands to remove the puss and scabbed up blood. There are callouses on his elbows and knees and there’s a patch of downy black pubic hair just above Death’s small penis. You’re not embarrassed though you’ve never bathed a child before. Madeleine miscarried twice when you were in your twenties and after that you gave up. It doesn’t matter now.
You drain the grey water and re-fill the tub. You do this three times, soaping up Death meticulously then rinsing him off and refilling the tub. When he’s finally clean you dry him with cotton bath towels and you stare at his chalky whiteness. His blue eyes twinkle and pierce the dark shadows under them. You wonder, with sadness, what those eyes have seen.
Swaddled in a bath sheet, you carry Death to your bed. He’s fallen asleep. You and lay him down tenderly between Madeleine and your own still, pale figure. Then you tuck the duvet under his chin. You have to squeeze yourself small and as thin as a gasp to slip back into your body.
It takes ten minutes to get inside: through the mouth; into the windpipe; down the bronchial passage; through the membrane and into the blood. Once there, you’re cold and blind but at least Death has nestled up to you. You can feel his dank hair dripping on your chest. His rhythmic breath is sultry after the bath. The scent of tea berry is sharp in your nostrils as you drift away.
By morning Death has colour in his cheeks. Come on, he says, it’s time for us to go. Your wife is about to wake to your corpse. This time getting out of the body is effortless. It’s odd: there’s no reluctance, no grief, no clinging. You don’t even glance twice at Madeleine.
It’s like your first day with a driver’s license. Remember? How you knew you could drive all the way to Muskoka, or Timmins, or even Winnipeg and no one could stop you. Now you’re standing with Death beside you, gazing over the dazzling fields.
Follow me, says Death reaching for you, you’ll see how this works. You grasp his hand and leap. That’s when everything changes.