In the very back of Landsdelle Cemetery, beneath a windfall of vine maples, Adaranth White took respite between two sheltered rows of graves, overgrown with blackberry brambles and tufted with moss. He’d chosen this particular spot because of the gravestone he was leaning on, that of one Jonathan Pease. He didn’t believe he’d known Mr. Pease—not even someone such as himself could know everyone—but he thought he would have liked him. Or at least liked whoever wrote the man’s epitaph, which read:
Under the sod and under the trees
Lies the body of Jonathan Pease.
He is not here, there’s only the pod:
Pease shelled out and went to God.
It made him smile, and every day Adaranth White tried to find something that would make him smile.
Somewhere behind him, five black dogs wandered among the headstones, panting and pawing. Soon they would be bored—they were eternally bored with him—and then they would return, one by one, and lie down in front of him with their paws crossed politely, and their tails held steady, all of their focus on him, their most boring of masters. Their stares would politely suggest that perhaps it would be best if he was done with whatever this overly long rest was and got on with it.
But for now, they were still engaged with their rabbit trails and the scent of bones beneath the earth, and he could sit in silence among the dead.
Cemeteries were his bread and butter, to use an old country phrase he’d heard once and never forgotten, and they were among the only places he felt comfortable now. The living made him nervous, if he was honest, all of their yearning and angst to stay that way. It rolled off of them and filled the air with a gravity that made him tired.
What he did like about the living was their language.
Language lived, yes, but it held no weight, no intense yearning, no expectations laid upon him like prayers. Adaranth collected all of the livings’ sayings, words, idiosyncrasies, idioms, oaths, and turns of phrase. The weirder and more esoteric the better. His favorites were expletives, often their origins long forgotten. Most of the interesting ones were not about life or death, but about the gods, or a God, or the idea of a god.
Some of his personal favorites were “ods bodkins” (God’s little body) and “By St. Boogar and all the saints at the backside door of purgatory!” (which he understood came either from a novel or a movie, or perhaps both, neither of with which he was familiar although he also understood there was some overtone or undertone of homosexuality, and this has for some reason caused an uproar at various points along the living timeline). In truth, the latter one was too long to be a proper expletive, but that’s also what, in his opinion, made it both unique and fun to say.
Despite whatever the dogs might think—and he could hear them beginning to circle back already, their welcome worn, their scents chased and caught and locked away for dreams of later—Adaranth waited here for reasons beyond the delight of punny headstones and the cool shelter of the mossy shade.
He was here to do the only thing (other than collecting sayings) that brought him any semblance of joy these days: helping someone hide—for a day or a month or perhaps even a year—from Death.
By the time that someone came, the dogs had made a show of giving up on him with long drawn-out sighs and were sleeping sideways in the sunslants, their tails thumping erratically to whatever dreams rose and fell inside their black skulls.
He’d been dreaming himself, of his husband mostly—an ancient moment of vulnerability. The way the fine black hairs on his spouse’s arms were whorled like fingerprints, how even as he kissed Adaranth with delicate, delicious care, there was always a part of him away, somewhere else. They’d been estranged for eons, which had taught Adaranth that, for him at least, time dulled pain, but it only deepened love. The way an injury settled into a scar. Or a shard of glass smoothed into a softness.
When Adaranth opened his eyes, somehow both heart-pained and groin-ached (time, it turned, did little to diminish lust either—a double-bladed knife both dull and sharp), she stood before him, her face at his face although she was standing and he was sitting. A child or a feywild? In his hazy, sleep-addled state, he couldn’t be sure. Still, not what he’d expected. His usual clients were witchwives and beasts of the bracken, the rare ones who understood who he was and what he could do.
Although “client,” perhaps, was the wrong term, as he never charged for his services. He did what he did to undo his own wrongs, and for the gift of any new phrase that might fall from the lips of those he helped. They called and he came, for what else to do with his long, unending years now that love was gone from him and all he had a leash on (and they him) was this pack of bored and weary hounds, unasked-for bodyguards against his desire?
“Adaranth White,” and it wasn’t a question, but still he said, “Yes,” because there were formalities to such things. Long ago, a soothsayer had asked him, just before he’d gone to stand on his wedding dais, “If you could see everything that would become, would you still go forth?” and how quickly he’d said yes, such a young man, not understanding time or love or even the power of promises.
Normally he would rise to greet a client, but it seemed respectful to stay seated, so that her eyes could see his, as he pulled various instruments from his many pockets and placed them purposefully on the ground in front of him.
She began to speak again, and he merely held up a hand, glanced quick at the dogs, who so far still slept. None had so much opened a single golden eye to see. His clients wished to hide from Death, but they didn’t know what that meant. All that entailed. How Death’s flamed eyes were everywhere, even in the golden eyes of these dogs, in the black beads of the crow’s gaze, in the sticky stigma of every pale flower that bent its head to the earth.
Adaranth alone knew that the only place Death never saw was cemeteries, graveyards, the occasional mass murder site. Because Death never looked. “Boring,” Death had said to Adaranth once. “Like going to a movie after the credits have rolled. To what purpose?”
To what purpose, indeed.
Still, precautions were to be had, even here. And so Adaranth laid out his instruments and watched the dogs’ closed eyes and did what little magic he had, what one small magic had been given to him not by bloodline but by marriage—a dowry of sorts—and he wondered who she had come to ask for. Not herself, likely—women, he’d found, of any age, of any origin, nearly never sought his services for themselves. It was nearly always some other, a beloved, a feared, a needed, a burden. Her father, perhaps, wasting away, having heard stories of the one who could hide you from Death, at least for a while. Perhaps she was a spirit caught and sent at someone’s bidding. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had come to him unwilling, a captive broker of another’s life.
It was human nature, he understood, to avoid dying for as long as possible, to do whatever you could to try and sidestep that final exit. Wasn’t that, if he was being honest, part of why he’d gotten married? Not to avoid dying, but to bring Death so close that he was sure it would not find him?
When he was done blinding Death’s eyes as best as he could, he nodded and said, “Who is it you wish to hide from _____?” He did not say Death’s name out loud, nor any of his other monikers, for Death’s ears were nearly as good and as omniscient as his eyes. Too, he resisted the urge to call her Child, for he still could not tell her age or origin, and did not wish to offend in case this form was not her own or not her desired one.
Sometimes language was not what it seemed, and Adaranth took a moment to consider this unexpected answer. Was No One a name of sorts? A shibboleth that he did not know?
Before he could sort through it, she went on. “That is not why I’m here.”
A misunderstanding of his skills, of what he could offer, then. A small matter, easy enough to fix and move on from. “I’m sorry,” he said kindly, beginning to collect his instruments. The nearest dog opened one eye at a soft clang, and it didn’t matter now, because there was no one who needed hiding. “I cannot bring someone back from Death’s hands, nor put someone there. You will have to find another for those purposes.”
“My Lord,” she started, and then went down on one knee in the dirt, her head to the ground before his feet and even though he was sitting already, he felt himself falling as if into an endless hole, his body sinking and boneless, and he knew then what kind of being she was.
Before the fire, before the oath, the soothsayer had asked her question and then etched Adaranth’s answer into his shoulder with the sharpened points of her nails. Pain was not a thing in the midst of love as big as this and he barely noticed, so intent was he on his beloved’s eyes, those golden flames that saw into him and through him and out the other side until every cell in his body was alight. The wounds upon his body had sealed instantly, seared to scar, and the soothsayer had placed a piece of parchment upon his skin and rubbed charcoal across it to make a mark. His seal. His signature. His oath.
Matched by his soon-to-be husband’s. The paper then rolled tight and tucked into a box into an egg into a raven into a beast unknown now on Earth sealed into a cave covered by a mountain beneath a tree bloomed into a fruit borne by a planet.
Now, Death’s messenger bent a knee to the earth and called him Lord.
“How did he find me?” Adaranth asked.
“You were never lost to Him,” she said.
Adaranth laughed, and it matched the howls of the black dogs and the whispers of the bones beneath the world and the tiny black eyes of every living creature shuttering open at once.
He understood that all his precautions, his instruments, his careful watch on dogs and ghosts and wild beasts—none of it had mattered. Death had always seem him. Into him. Through him.
Hiding from Death’s eyes indeed. He wondered if the minced oath for Death’s eyes was just… dies. All these years, and every time, Death had seen his actions (“You are not a movie, Adaranth. I would watch you through eternity”) and still until this moment, had never come for him, had never told him to stop, never once begged him to come home, back to their marriage, back to their bed.
In answer, she said all the names of Adaranth’s husband from eternity to here and saying so took its own eternity and no more time than a heartbeat and a dog bark, and she finished with his most common of names, the one that Adaranth knew him and loved him by. “…has died, my Lord.”
And there were, for the first time in centuries, no words to be found in Adaranth’s mouth. No idioms, no sayings, no expletives, no oaths. He felt as though he’d spent a lifetime building armor about his body and his heart only to discover that it wasn’t armor at all. It was just his own skin, fallible and thrice-worn thin. And still his heart, that treacherous beating morass of muscle and memory, refused to falter or fail.
A long time they waited, the dogs shifting and snuffling and eventually sitting on their hunches and howling in unison, a mourning of time’s press and wane.
Eventually, because somewhere in the passage of time, his eyes had created an ocean and his wounds had seared themselves to scars and his tongue had remembered the form of words. And because he did not know what else to do but this, he said, “How can that be?”
She held out a small blue planet between her palms.
“He left this for you.”
Between his hands, a planet. Inside, a pomegranate. A shard of stone. A beast unknown. A bird, croaked. A crystalline egg. A black box.
And in the center: a paper, rolled tight. An oath. A promise. A past and a future.
Even on their wedding dais. “What’s mine is yours now, Adaranth. If I should die…”
Adaranth had laughed, kissed him, filled with all the things he didn’t know and didn’t understand. “Hush. You are Death. You will never die.”
And hadn’t Death promised Adaranth that was true? Hadn’t his beloved looked upon him and agreed that it was so? No, Adaranth didn’t think he had.
His husband. His beloved. His Death. Those golden eyes and dark whorls. That mischievous mouth. That part that was always elsewhere, overseeing the world’s slow end.
He remembered, now, why they’d parted. It wasn’t because there was no longer love or lust, but because there was too much, for too long. It burned through the edges of Adaranth’s skin, seared his heart, a constant hot ember that flared each time it was blown on. Who could live in such love forever and not die of its sear?
The husband of Death, that was who. Dying, for him, was not an option. Adaranth thought he had escaped by running away, but he understood now that his love had let him go, as best as he could. Given Adaranth the hounds to watch over him and the Earth to wander and the small magic of hiding a few souls here and there. A purpose. A gift.
Adaranth held the paper oath between his palms and understood that this too was a gift. A final gift of love, of freedom, if Adaranth chose it.
It would burn so easily. Become ash and light and memory. Adaranth could make his final resting place here, among the sod and leaves and the headstone of Jonathan Pease. Lay it all down, let his bones decry the light, let his heart unfurl the roots of what was planted, let his love die.
Let Death die.
What’s mine is yours now.
If you could see everything that would become, would you still go forth?
His heart answered what his mouth could not.
“Let’s go home,” he said, and the dogs, upon hearing the word they’d been waiting for these long ages, had already risen and were ready, tails a-wag, before the man who’d chosen Death could bring himself to rise.
If Shanna Germain were a god, she’d be the Benevolent God of Rainbow Sprinkles. Sadly, she’s only human. Her award-winning body of work encompasses stories, games, poems, and essays about lust, lies, and leviathans, and includes Predation, No Thank You, Evil!, Invisible Sun, As Kinky as You Wanna Be, The Lure of Dangerous Women, and The Poison Eater. Currently, she’s hard at work on a fantasy novel about psychopomps and Post-It note gods; a roleplaying game about the devil’s dandy dogs; and a cookie recipe that she hopes will bring all the puppies to her yard. She lives in a rainforest with a dog named &. Follow her down the rabbit hole at shannagermain.com.