“The Thief” by Albert Berg

TWA 55 Al-01

The sun beat down on the steppe, and its rays fell on a great tent made from the skins of a thousand animals. A dry wind blew the flaps of the tent open and a dust devil swirled in over the king’s deathbed. He coughed and coughed, and the fresh blood stained the dried blood in his beard red once again. The shadow fell over the foot of his bed, and the king looked up and nodded gravely.

“I’ve seen your face before, spectre. On the field of battle you took my friends and enemies alike. I thought I would meet you myself long before today, but I evaded your clutches somehow until now.”

“You didn’t evade me,” the shadow replied. “I’ve had this appointment with you since before the stars sang.”

“And yet…”

“What is it?”

“I do not so suppose you can be bargained with?”

“I’m not known for shirking my duty,” the shadow replied.

“I am the wealthiest man in the world. Thousands of trained soldiers obey my words. Surely there is something that can be done.”

“I have no need of money. And an army would only make even more work for me to do.”

“Can nothing be done? Can I not bargain for just one more day?”

“What would one more day mean to you?” the shadow asked.

“It would mean everything. My house is in disarray. My sons squabble like dogs fighting over a bone. I have wrenched this kingdom from the grasp of lesser men, and if I die today it will fall to pieces. You have seen me in my fury, and it is true that I have killed a great many men, but my reign has meant peace and prosperity for so many more. I weep to think of my subjects falling once again to the cruel whims of chaos. Please, grim spectre. I do not ask for immortality. I need only one day.”

“One day means very little to me,” said the shadow. “Very well. Make up your business. I hope you are not foolish enough to think you can run or hide from me. I will return at this time on the morrow.”

And so the shadow did as it had said.

The sun set, and the sun rose again. The king set his house in order, and insured that the kingdom would not fall to pieces when he was gone.

When the shadow fell on his deathbed again, the king said, “Now I am ready. Now I can die. But I have done something in that one single day that you cannot touch. I have made something that you cannot steal.”

“I steal nothing,” the shadow said. “But there is something out there that is worse than me. Now come, and let us see what manner of rest you will enter into.”

—–

The sunlight played through a high window and down into the studio of an artist and found the man doubled over with pain but still working away at his painting. He could barely hold his hands steady, and yet he stabbed and slashed and picked at the canvas in front of him, each swath of color burning as brightly as the pain that wracked his body.

Then the shadow fell across him, blocking out the beautiful sunlight.

“It is time,” the shadow said.

The artist wept, and for the first time in months the tears were not the product of his pain. “Please,” he said, and the pain was so great that he could say nothing else.

“I’m afraid we really must be going. Surely you must be ready to shed this mortal form. I can relieve the pain you feel forever,” the shadow said.

“But it is not finished,” gasped the artist. “I am so close. So many others, and they have all led to this one master work. I have found new beauty, new genius in the pain that fills me now. I need only one more day to complete it. Just one more day and I can rest. I will go gladly with you tomorrow, but please, dark spirit, please give me today.”

“One day or the other matters very little to me,” replied the shadow. “I suppose I will find you here on the morrow?”

“Yes,” said the artist. “Thank you. Oh, thank you for having mercy.”

And so the shadow left.

And the artist painted on through the rest of the day and long into the night, with a great many candles filling the room to stave off the darkness and illuminate the canvass. He painted as none had ever painted before or since, and in that final day all of the craft and all of the passion of his art was poured out onto the canvass. But as the night wore on the candles wore down, one by one, until at the last he painted by the faint silver light of the moon.

And when the next day came the shadow stood over him once again. “I’m ready now,” said the artist. “I have done it. I have made something of rare and perfect beauty. You can have my body and perhaps even my soul. But you can never have this,” he said, pointing at the newly finished work.

“You are right,” said the shadow. “I can do nothing with your painting. And what a lovely painting it is. But there is something worse than I. Now come along, and let us see what manner of rest you shall enter into.”

—–

Somewhere in the deepest part of the darkest ocean, the shadow fell over a small creature. There was no light to cast the shadow; in the perfect darkness of the deep one might say that the idea of a shadow had no meaning at all. But there it was anyway.

The creature had no eyes, no ears. It felt nothing through the thick carapace that protected its vital organs. It boasted nothing so elaborate as a brain, just a knot of nerves that fired at just the right intervals to keep it moving forward. Four antennae sprouted from its head, guiding it through the black waters, searching for a single morsel of food in the barren darkness.

And yet somehow it seemed the creature felt the presence of the shadow, for it struggled on a little faster; it’s sweeping mouth-parts combed the water more desperately.

“Don’t get too worked up on my account,” the shadow said. “There isn’t any hurry. I have all the time in the world.”

And so the creature calmed, and continued on forward.

“I never used to do personal visits for little things like you,” the shadow said. “Most of the time you sorted yourselves out without any fuss. You’re probably wondering why I’m here.”

The little creature gave no indication that he had been wondering any such thing, but the shadow continued speaking. “The stars are going out you know.”

“Do you know about stars? No, I wouldn’t think that you would. Huge, bright balls of light, like so many sparks scattered across the night sky. Except each one of those sparks was a roiling burning ball of gas a million miles across.”

“So many of them. So many you couldn’t count them all.”

The shadow grew contemplative. “I remember one where a kind of fish popped up, living in the burning heart of a star. Can you believe it?”

The creature struggled on forward. He was not, it seemed, able to believe it.

“It didn’t last very long,” the shadow said sadly. “Only a couple of hours before it fell apart into that furious burning inferno. But you’d better believe I was there for that one. I saw it.”

The shadow paused, and then said more softly, “I’m the only one who saw it.” Then he seemed to brighten up (if such a thing is possible for a shadow) and added, “And now I’m telling you.”

“And of course there were the rest of them, perhaps not as improbable, but no less spectacular. The stars made the light, and the light made life. Life grew from every corner of the unfathomable galaxy. It was like a mold that spread and spread until it was everywhere. And of course, where there is life, I must follow close behind.

“But it was different then. I was making room, one life at a time, for more and better life. I saw it change, generation to generation, growing strong against sickness and disease and predators. Sometimes one strain would die out completely, and another strain would rise to take it’s place. Sometimes entire worlds would be wiped out in an instant of fire and death, and I would be there to pick up the scattered pieces and shepherd them on. But you know the worst part of it?”

“The worst part of it, was that most of them never found out about the others. There’d be things living in the same star system, sometimes even on the same planet, entire civilizations that never knew the other existed.”

The creature cocked its left lower antenna slightly to the right.

“Civilizations? Well those were the people. People? Well, you can’t get much more specific than that without leaving some out. The things that thought, let’s call them.”

“They were terrible and wonderful and strange all at once. Most of them were afraid of me. But they shouldn’t have been. I wasn’t the one that took the most. They worked so hard, and built so much. They so desperately wanted something to go on beyond my reach. But I wasn’t the one who stole from them. I wasn’t the one who erased their histories, broke down their kingdoms and leached the colors from their paintings. And I wasn’t the one who made their stars run out, and their oceans boil, and their stones crumble into dust.” The shadow paused. Or had something caught in its throat? “It was never me.”

“And now it’s all gone. All of their kingdoms, all of their beauty, and all that’s left is you.”

The scuttling thing seemed to be moving slower now, and one of its legs seemed to have stopped working completely.

“Won’t you bargain with me?” the shadow implored. “Please. Won’t you plead for just one more day? One more day will not matter to me.”

But the scuttling thing said nothing at all. And so with a weary heart the shadow reached down and touched it with the tip of a finger made of darkness. The scuttling thing twitched, once, twice, and then lay still.

The shadow looked up. For the first time in its existence there was nothing to do.

For a while it walked through the space between what was left of the stars. It searched the debris of worlds for the carved stones and bits of shaped metal that had once meant so much to the living, but there was nothing to be found. Until at last the shadow came to the dark door that hung at the edge of the universe. How many times had it been to that door? It had opened that door more times than any man could count in a thousand lifetimes. But never had it passed through.

The shadow had always wondered what lay beyond that dark door. It pushed it open, and heard the sound of rushing water coming from a great distance.

It looked back once more at the empty universe.

And then it stepped forward to see what manner of rest it might enter into.

The door shut behind it leaving the fading stars to the unfeeling ravages of time.

 

 

 


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albertAlbert Berg: Albert was born in the swamps of Florida and quickly developed a gripping writing style by wrestling with crocodiles. You never know what you will get from Albert, be it sentient paper products or religious squirrels, but you do know that behind the flash there will be a well thought out story that will make you reflect on your own life.  Albert is the author of The Mulch Pile and A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw.
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6 Comments

  1. Albert, of course, delivers a thoughtful tale which examines death in an almost playful manner, while revealing a bit more about the guest of honor every iteration. Peace, art, all of them tauted as things which can outlive death, and they can. But they cannot outlive all of death.
    This point seemed so poignant and viewing death as one mechanism while Time, or what have you, was also driving things made me want to *see* Time pop up too. Or have death be understood by someone at last.

    As it is we have a dying lobster. Which I liked. And death heading off to whatever is next, which I liked. But nothing was pounded home for me. I think I would have liked that even more.

    Still though I *really* liked Death talking to the lobster.

  2. I concur. It’s the simplicity, also, that makes this story rather lovely. Plus, it does what any good story should do: take something known or well-worn and put a different spin or take a different view of it. So many times Death has been personified, yet this is the first I’ve seen where you see what Death does when there’s no one left to take.

    Well done, Berg.

  3. Since Al was kind enough to comment on my story…

    Given Al’s love for the late great Terry Pratchett, I had half-expected a stronger homage to the Discworld version of Death. I was very happy to find that not the case, but I wasn’t really surprised. Each time Al competes, I’m impressed with his originality.

    Moving on to the story proper, there’s so much I love about it. I love the not-quite fairy tale tone. I love the use of the “rule of three.” I really, really love the conversation with the lobster; would have been too obvious if it had been a cockroach, right?

    There are parts of me that wish that there had been more of a build-up to Death’s ennui at the very end, where he’s begging for the last creature alive to bargain with him. The other scenarios I read as mostly from the perspective of the dying individuals, so the shift to Death’s monologue was perhaps slightly jarring.

    But I really enjoy how Al and I chose to deal with similar themes: What does Death fear? What does Death see as its true purpose? Al takes that idea a step further, asking what purpose Death might find after the Universe itself has died.

    A very nice story.

  4. This was a story told simply.

    Simple is really hard to do well. Al does it well here. The story is polished and elegant, and where other readers were looking for “more” I thought Al’s decision to work at this pace – unhurried, like Death’s approach to the mortals begging for one more day – was the right one.

    I admire Al’s sense of pacing. The more I read of his work the more impressed I become. He really is very talented, and his authorial voice has a lot in common with some much better known writers.

  5. “That is not dead which can eternal lie,
    And with strange aeons even death may die.”

  6. Pingback: 2015 Arena Year in Review | The Writer's Arena

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