“There is an answer to everything except death. And death is the answer to everything.”
— Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer
There was something unusual about the woman who seated herself at Jacinta’s bedside.
The strangeness did not lie in the soft aura of sadness that surrounded her. Many people who came into the extended care wing of the hospital were sad. Perhaps most.
Nor was it just the fact that visitors’ hours had ended. Tia Ana had taken Mamá to the hospital’s guest house maybe ten minutes ago. Jacinta thanked all the saints. There were only so many sighs of “My brave, brave girl” that she could take. She didn’t sleep very much or very deeply, but she looked forward to being alone with her thoughts. The beeps and hums of the monitors singing to her. Instead, this strange woman arrived.
Her strangeness did not lie in her appearance either. Not really. She was tall, but many women were taller than Mamá and Tia Ana. She wore nicer clothes than many visitors Jacinta had seen in the corridors of the hospital, a full dress in a golden yellow filled with red roses, as if the flowers from a dozen bouquets tumbled across the face of the sun. Her lace shawl completed an outfit that was fancier than many worn to the hospital, but some visitors did dress up.
“Tia Ana says it’s an act of mercy to visit the sick.”
She hated how her voiced sounded—weak and hoarse, too nasally from the tubes up her nose. As if it already sounded from the bottom of a deep hole.
The woman seemed surprised. Had she really thought Jacinta hadn’t seen her? The something peculiar about the woman did include her face. It didn’t move right, like the women in Mamá’s television programs who had had too many surgeries. But in this case, the stiffness to her face did not make her any less beautiful. Only…strange.
Jacinta tried to help her out in her distress.
“You are here to visit me, right?”
The woman nodded, a slow, precise gesture.
“Well, the doctors won’t let me have any candy, and Tia Ana thinks flowers will give me the hay fever.” She laughed, as if hay fever made any difference when she was dying of blood cancer.
The woman just looked at Jacinta. She didn’t think the woman could blink her eyes.
At last Jacinta broke the silence. “If you like, you could tell me a story.”
She didn’t think the woman would answer, but at last she spoke.
“If it pleases you…”
Jacinta’s breath caught in her throat. The woman’s voice… So beautiful. She had never heard a more charming voice. She found the button that would raise the head of her bed and settled in to listen to the story.
Once, in the early days, when the Powers of the universe were young, the Powers worked diligently at their assigned tasks. The great Powers drove the stars of heaven, creating vast systems of order through atomic forces. The lesser Powers shaped the worlds of these systems, or only aspects of these worlds. The wind and the tides, the plants of the soil, the plankton of the sea.
None worked harder than the Powers assigned to the blue orb we know as Earth. They made the sea deep and filled it with fish of every size and color. They raised the atmosphere high and filled the sky with birds, each singing in its own voice.
They worked until they grew tired from the wonder of it all. And it was then that the youngest among them voiced a question.
“We have labored hard on this world, harder than any of our brothers or sisters elsewhere. Why do we not fashion workers for ourselves and have them labor while we enjoy the beauty around us?”
This seemed good to the Powers of our world. So they fashioned lumps of clay in their own image, and, one by one, they breathed into these lumps of clay, until the lumps of clay moved with the breath of life.
Thus the Powers made humanity, and they set humanity to the tasks they had found too burdensome for themselves. And things went well, for a time.
Yet after a time, the duties the Powers set for them grew burdensome for humanity too. So woman lay with man, and man with woman, and children were born, one after the other. Mother trained daughter and father trained son, but still the labor seemed too much, so humanity raised up ever more children.
All of this humanity made quite a noise, disturbing the leisure of the Powers. When they looked down on the Earth, they saw humanity threatening to overrun the place. In a panic and a rage, they went to the youngest among them.
“You inflicted this plague upon us. You must be the one to do something about them.”
The youngest Power thought and thought, until at last he reached for a hunk of darkness, the unformed chaos that lies between the worlds.
Though it kept slipping through his fingers, he eventually forced it into a shape like the shadow of a human being. This shade he sent among humanity. It danced among them, delighting in its existence. As it danced, it touched some of the human beings. Whoever the shade touched, that person released their breath of life to the Powers and the clay of their body back to the Earth.
When the shade realized what it was doing, it returned to its maker.
“What have you done to me? How can my dance be the destruction of my fellow creatures?”
“You were created to be that destruction. Without your dance, the humans would threaten the Powers themselves. You will dance among them, because that is your duty. For such you were made.”
And so the shadow returned to the humans, killing everyone its dance touches. It takes no delight in the destruction, but it does its duty, as do we all.
That is how Death came into the world.
“That’s not how the story goes.”
The woman turned her unblinking eyes to Jacinta.
“I beg your pardon?”
Jacinta took a breath. She could feel her heart pounding inside her. “I’m sorry, Señora, but that’s not how the story goes.”
An emotion glowed in the woman’s eyes that Jacinta couldn’t read. She felt a little scared of her, but mostly sorry for this sad, beautiful stranger.
“Were you there?” Such a cold voice.
The woman looked away, toward the door to Jacinta’s room. The small glass window reflected part of her face, but not all of it. Jacinta could not see her eyes.
“I was.” The voice was so soft that Jacinta could hardly hear it, though most of the coldness had melted out of it.
“It’s still not how the story goes. This is how my Tia Ana tells it.”
She closed her eyes as she spoke, in part to help her remember her aunt’s exact words, in part to keep from looking at the woman in her private sorrow.
When the first man and woman had eaten the forbidden fruit and had fallen into disfavor with God, God was left with a problem. He had given to fallen humanity what blessings He could. In addition to the promise of future reconciliation, he gave them the blessing of work—so that humanity would always remember that creation comes through self-sacrifice—and He gave them the blessing of labor—so that humanity would always remember that there is no life without the shedding of blood.
The problem was that, as things stood, human beings would live apart from God as long as their life on Earth endured. God needed a way both to ensure humanity would not live forever in misery and to impel humanity to seek reconciliation with Him while they were able.
Good looked all over His creation for one who could perform this special task. But the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones were all too busy praising Him. The Dominions, Virtues, and Powers were too busy governing the forces of the universe. Even the Principalities, Archangels, and Angels were busy with the growing mass of humanity. None of them seemed free for God’s task.
At last God found a lowly angel who watched over a young human girl. He showed Himself to the angel, and she prostrated herself low before Him.
“How can this one serve you, Lord?”
“What are you doing, my daughter?”
The angel indicated the child in the bed. “This soul under my care is gravely sick. She eats, but takes in no nourishment. She sleeps, but receives no rest. She is in constant pain, and I do not know how to comfort her.”
God regarded the soul and then the angel. “Do you want to end her suffering?”
“With all my being, Lord.”
“Take her in your arms and whisper in her ear the word I tell you to say.”
The angel took the girl into her arms and whispered into her ear as instructed by God. The girl let out a great cry, and in an instant, God held the soul of the girl in His arms, the angel only the body.
“She will rest with me until the final reconciliation.”
The angel had tears in her eyes. “Thank you, Lord.”
“I have more for you to do, if you are willing.”
“Whatever you ask of me, Lord, I will do.”
So God gave the angel a new name, La Santa Muerte, and He sent her into the world, that humans might know an end to their misery and that they might remember that their lives should be more than just living.
Jacinta finished the story and opened her eyes. She smiled at the woman.
“That’s how Tia Ana tells the story.”
The woman shook her head and spoke again in her soft, almost inaudible voice.
“I was there. It didn’t happen that way.”
Jacinta reached down and took hold of the woman’s hand. It was cold, very cold, and she could feel every bone.
“My Tia Ana knows everything about La Santa Muerte. That’s what happened.”
The woman shook her head again. There was a smile on her face, but a sad look in her eyes.
“Your Tia Ana does not know La Santa Muerte the way that I do. The story is pretty, but it is a pretty lie.”
“My Tia Ana never lies!”
The woman squeezed Jacinta’s hand.
“Let me tell you what La Santa Muerte is really like, who she really is…”
Many years ago, there was a town in the heart of the country. A plague had raged throughout the land in those days, yet none of the citizens of this town had fallen ill. From the smallest child to the oldest greybeard, the town thrived while the rest of the country suffered.
As harvest time approached, the elders of the town and the mayor decided they needed to celebrate their good fortune. The decision was made that, when the harvest was completed and safely stored, they would hold a festival for the whole community.
Every citizen of the town worked diligently bringing in the crops, and that year the barns and cellars were filled until they overflowed. At last the mayor decreed the harvest over. The town began preparing for the celebration.
For three days the butchers and bakers of the town cooked for the feast. The seamstresses and matrons of the town bedecked the town square with bright-colored ribbons and streamers. Anyone at all musical trained on their instrument. All made ready.
The day of the festival came. The people ate and drank, they danced and sang, and, shortly before sunset, the mayor ascended a platform especially erected for the occasion. He looked over the assembled citizens, a broad smile on his broad face, and began to speak.
“Brothers and sisters, my dear fellow citizens, we come to this day knowing that we are special. We know that the gods hear our prayers above all others in the land. Our granaries are full, or pantries all have more than they need. While so many other communities weep, our hearts are filled with joy.”
The mayor had everyone’s full attention. Every pair of eyes were fixed on him, and many nodded in agreement. The townfolk knew that they were special, knew that they were better than the people of any other town.
“And so we celebrate, my brothers and sisters. We must celebrate the skill with which we have risen above the dangers all around us.”
In all of the assembly, there was only one who did not applaud the mayor’s speech. A tall woman, dressed all in black. The mayor frowned to see anyone in such a somber color on that festive day.
“And so, my brothers and sisters, let us celebrate our town tonight and all we have achieved.”
The cheers echoed off the buildings of the square, and the musicians struck up a lively tune. The entire town began to dance. The mayor laughed in delight to see the people so happy. Then he saw something to give him pause.
Starting on the edge of the crowd, the woman in black he had noticed earlier joined in the dance. She never spent more than a few moments with any one partner before she traded off. She danced with the town guard and the town drunkard, with seamstresses and harlots, with merchants and beggars, with blacksmiths and laundresses, with priests and elders. She danced with everyone in town.
The music wavered as she danced with every musician in turn. At last she danced with the mayor himself.
“You are correct, your honor.” Though her voice was soft, the mayor could hear it clearly over the music. “Your town is unique in all the land, indeed, in the whole world. Everywhere else, the raging plague has carried off one in four, or at most, one in three. But here, in this special place, it will claim you all.”
The woman kissed the mayor on the cheek. The spot burned. Sweat broke out on his forehead. He looked out over the square. The entire town lay on the ground, moaning in pain and vomiting out their insides. He fell to the ground himself. The music stopped, though the woman kept dancing. She danced until the entire town died, from the youngest child to the oldest greybeard.
Death danced with them all.
The woman fell silent. Jacinta’s heart ached for her. She was too beautiful to be so sad.
“That is La Santa Muerte,” the woman said at last. The word Santa twisted with bitter irony. “A monster, jealous of her privileges. Inflicting her will on all, regardless of station.”
Jacinta held the woman’s hand tightly.
“I’ve heard that story too, of the town where everyone dies. But this is how Tia Ana tells the story…”
Once there was a town just beyond ours, but much like ours in every way. It had large mansions and tiny hovels. It had clean streets and dirty streets. It had churches and taverns, schools and businesses. Its citizens were rich and poor, old and young, pious and wicked.
But unlike our town, the divide between the rich and poor was very wide. So God sent a plague to the town. The plague was not a judgment or a curse but a test. A test of human charity. As always happens, the people judged themselves.
The poor were the first afflicted by the plague—living in close, unsanitary quarters, how could they not be? The test lay in how the town would react when the first people became sick. Would neighbor help neighbor or not?
In this town, they did not. Those able to walled their hearts off from the cries of the sick and closed their homes to their suffering. As the moans of those in distress grew louder, they played music or turned up the volume on their television sets so they didn’t have to hear.
Since their neighbors would not help them, the sick cried out to the Good Lord for an end to their suffering, and the Good Lord heard their pleas. He sent La Santa Muerte among them, bringing an end to their pain. And because God is just, He sent La Sana Muerte among the homes of those who had shut themselves off from the sick too.
For all are equal in the eyes of La Santa Muerte, just as all are equal in the eyes of God. La Santa Muerte dances with the rich and the poor, with the old and the young, with the sinner and the saint.
La Santa Muerte comes to every soul. How we receive her is up to us.
The woman did not take her eyes off Jacinta as she told her story. When she finished, the woman shook her head a third time.
“Lies. Just because they are beautiful does not make them any less lies.”
Jacinta reached out and ran her fingers through the woman’s hair. It was so soft, soft as she remembered the silk of her first communion veil.
“You think Tia Ana’s stories can’t be true, that La Santa Muerte is a monster.” She rested her hand against the woman’s cheek. “But that’s only true if death is the worst possible thing that can happen to a person. We both know that is not the case.”
Jacinta felt a wetness against her palm. “So what is death?” She could not help but hear the eagerness in the woman’s voice.
“Death is our sister. The companion who leads us to the next great adventure. La Santa Muerte is the friend who walks beside us all down that last road.”
The woman looked away, toward the door to the room. “It must be lonely, to have all her friends leave her.”
“If you like, big sister, I will sit with you a while longer.”
The woman pulled away. As she did, the color of her face came off on Jacinta’s palm, revealing the white bone below. The woman let out a loud cry, and covered her face in her hands. When she took her hands away, any pretense of flesh was gone. Bright eyes watched Jacinta from a skull face.
“How long have you known?”
“Almost since the beginning, sister.”
Jacinta smiled. “I may be a child, but I’m not stupid.”
“And you are not frightened of me?”
“Everyone dances with La Santa Muerte at least once in their lifetime. Tia Ana has told me about you, and I have heard the music of your dance for a long, long time. I am happy to meet you at last.”
La Santa Muerte smiled a bitter smile. “Few are so happy to see me. It…wears on one after a while.”
“Many people are fools,” Jacinta agreed, “spending their whole lives trying to ignore what can’t be ignored and avoid what can’t be avoided.”
La Santa Muerte rose from her chair. “If you are ready then, child, it is time.”
Jacinta nodded. “Will it hurt?” Years of doctors sticking needles everywhere in her body, months of treatments worse than the disease, and still her voice trembled.
Skeletal hands stroked Jacinta’s bare scalp. “I’ll make it as painless as I can, little sister.”
Jacinta nodded and closed her eyes. La Santa Muerte reached her right hand into the girl’s sternum. Flesh and bone resisted for a moment. Jacinta gasped. Then her eyes went wide as she saw…something. Something that La Santa Muerte never quite saw, because it was not meant for her. Not until she had completed her service.
Alarms sounded, both in the hospital room and at the nurses’ station. La Santa Muerte laid the precious body back down on the bed and went on to the next partner in her dance.
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt hardly needs an introduction. He has long been a part of the arena as one of its weekly judges. Donald strives to write what he calls “haiku fiction,” stories that are small in scope but big on impact. Find out more about haiku fiction here. He welcomes comments at his blog http://haikufiction.blogspot.com or via Twitter @haikufictiondju).