And with a gasp I found myself in a forest. It was silent with anticipation but calls from the birds echoed amongst the canopies in an eerily melodic way.
Where was I before?
The violent twisting cords of the parasitic ivy attached to the trees like fireworks clinging to the sky- for a split second – but then they were gone. And I was in the forest again. Dusk. Cold. Empty. Empty aside from a table and two chairs planted in the centre of the clearing with legs equidistant from each other standing formidable amongst the foliage. But they were worn down and seemingly derelict as wood was chipped off and discoloured from their frames. Upon further inspection, the furniture looked tired. Maybe even lonely.
Sat on top of the table was a chess board. A mahogany chess board with polish slowly matting and squares merging to make distinction between black and white near to impossible. In two organised rows stood the brigade of pawns diametrically opposed to one another with the glow from the moon shining on their glazed heads. I picked up the black queen. She felt weak in my palm. She was moribund. And as I lay her back down on the board I was overcome with a sudden sadness. It was as if my lungs were drained of their air as the cold night grasped at my soul. It was cold in the forest.
That was the first time I saw him. A distant apparition stood ominously across from me. His cloak was billowing in the still air as he slowly made his way over to me. In his hand was a long stick that stretched up to the heavens with the blade at the end curling round its frame as the base clicked on the floor like a metronome with every step he took. Palpitations began shaking my frail body as my hands turned a sickly bile with fear. He was the harbinger of grief and the symbol of fear- he was Death. And I knew that I was here for one thing only: to bargain.
Removing his shrouded hood, Death spoke. “I have roamed this earth for thousands of years. I have witnessed the growth and loss of generations in one lifetime. I am the Angel of Death, the Reaper, the Boatman” he uttered as if it were an incantation. I could feel the dilation of my pupils as a breath of air plummeted down my throat and the eerie melody contorted into haunting shrieks.
“Then why am I here? Where’s Dad?” I enquired amongst the tremors in my jaw. My glossy eyes could not meet the cavernous pits in his skull so instead darted towards the forest floor. “You are here to play” he responded and swung his arm to gesture to the chess board. I would not be afraid of him. I couldn’t. I sat down on the white side and looked Death in the eyes. “What if I lose?” I asked with specious confidence.
“You move on to the next stage of life like every mortal being that passes through here” said Death.
“And if I win?”
“I grant you the greatest prize any living being can wish for: immortality.”
We began to play.
Death methodically twisted the scythe to and fro between his fingers as his pieces advanced forward with pawns jutting out from his side. The air filled with silence as my mind raced with calculation, possibility and adrenaline.
From a far I could see the same familiar feline rushing through the bushes in pursuit of a mouse.
I recalled the advice Dad always gave me on rainy nights: “the king is no match for the mighty pawn”.
Knight takes a rook. Rook takes the knight. Bishop moves forward. Pawn takes the bishop. Death is in check.
I feel air expel from my shaking lungs as I look around the empty forest. He moves the king. I move the pawn.
The ebony king fell to the floor as the rook slid over the board claiming d6 as his own. Death leaned back into his chair in disbelief with his skeletal hands clasping slowly. Emanating shadows from his body turned red with smoke as his eyes rose to meet mine. He nodded. “Impressive” he uttered rising from the table, eyes locked on the fortuitous defeat laying on the board. Fraying fabric from his cloak slid off the rigid frame of his body as he approached me, scythe in hand. Smirking, I stretched out to shake his hand but he had gone. And looking down, I saw my body adorned in the dark, dilapidated uniform grasping the scythe between my fingers and palm. Looking on, the amorphous figure was walking away from me but as the old Grim Reaper faded into nothingness, I saw the look on his face was not one of defeat, but relief. Chasing after him I called out, “What now? Did you do it? Did you make me immortal?” Tired, his eyes crept up to find me as I saw the longing in him: the longing for a beating heart, skin to feel the warmth, lungs to breathe the air, a soul.
“You have freed me, my son, and in turn you will become Death” he croaked as air expelled from the empty cavity in his chest, “But be warned, humanity is a cruel race. You will learn to be condemned by those you love. An example of hate, fear and sadness: that’s how they will see you.” The scythe began to burn my skin and adhere to my hand plunging me to my knees – either the cold was sucking out the heat or I was bleeding. With eyes crying for mercy I stretched out to him begging, “No, I take it back!” If I had a heart, it would have broken through my skin. “I take back my move! I resign!” I pleaded. Death’s skull dragged his body towards me with ivory bones jutting out like thorns. And with one final, lasting whisper, the Grim Reaper called into my ear “All hail the King of Death”.