It’s quite an experience to watch a skeleton smoke a pipe. It’s also hard to say with any certainty just what kind of experience it is, except that there is not nearly so much comedy in it as a mind brought up on kitschy halloween costumes might expect. There is also no quality of it that could be considered cute; not even in the ways that some believe the macabre to have subtle dimensions of cuteness. The best way to describe it – if there is such a thing as ‘best’ – is that it is like viewing a moderately disturbing artwork in a fancy museum. Or better still, it’s like being in the audience of some really weird interpretive dance performance. Yes, that last one about captures the sense of it; especially if the dance involves an excessive use of marionettes and aromatic dry-ice. Although, there is another, more accurate way to describe it: subtly horrific.
“Let me see if I understand this correctly,” said a nicotine-stained skull, “you think, that because of my current line of work, I’m somehow responsible for this excess of ghosts roaming the Earth?”
“We had wondered,” said Stag Hartwell, former prehistoric deer and contemporary Spirit Animal. “Are you?”
The skull glared back across a well-used kitchen table.
“No, really?” Said Mamma Universe, who was seated next to Stag, “are you? I mean, it is causing all sorts of problems for me.”
“Not only for you,” complained Haldrick, one of the two ghosts that were also present. “I’ve been stuck near my grave for centuries. They built a urinal on top of it, you know.”
The second ghost, one Finely Jansen Guildersand, said nothing. He was too busy admiring how much death became him. Which is to say, he was looking at his reflection in the kitchen window. As far as he could judge, he looked totally fantastic. But of course, he always did. It was one of the reasons he felt that he had been such a remarkable man while he was alive. Made sense that he would also be remarkable in death.
“I,” huffed the pipe-smoking skeleton, “find that question offensive. It reminds me of my mother.”
“Why? Did she often accuse you of being lazy?” Mamma Universe was genuinely curious.
“No.” The skeleton pointed a well-chewed pipe stem at Mamma Universe, “it’s because you look exactly like her.”
“Oh,” said Mamma Universe, “I hadn’t expected that.” And she hadn’t. She never knew what she looked like to those she revealed herself to; having no natural form of her own meant that people would just see her in the way that most suited their temperament. For Stag, she was a small star. For Finley, she was a beautiful young woman that found him attractive. For Haldrick, she was the Witch-Hag of Fate that had cursed him to watch over his mouldering bones for eternity. Looking exactly like someone’s mother was completely new.
Haldrick, who hadn’t yet cottoned on to Mamma Universe’s quirks of form, was shocked. “Your mother looked like the Witch-Hag? Why that’s terrible Mr. Death, no wonder you’ve been cursed to harvest the souls of the recently deceased. All that childhood trauma must have driven you to it.”
“Miss,” said the skeleton.
“What?” Haldrick was puzzled.
“Technically, it would be Miss Death. More properly it would be Miss Daisy Wheelwright.”
“I don’t understand,” Haldrick fumbled. “You’re a woman?”
“Another woman? Where? Is she attractive?” Finley had started to pay less attention to himself, and more attention to the conversation. Everybody just ignored him. It was safer.
“Yes, I believe I can still call myself woman. Check these out.” Daisy – pipe-smoker, soul-harvester, and woman – indicated her pelvic bone with stained skeletal hands. “Nice, eh? Wide, no? Would have been perfect for childbearing if my life hadn’t been cut so tragically short. Twenty-three, I was. Twenty-three-years-young when ‘Old Grim’ – that’s the last Death – took me. Brazen he was about it, too. My corpse was still warm on the gallows. I was quite upset, I can tell you. I understand that he was in a hurry to retire, and needed a replacement. But still, I did feel slightly put upon. He did apologize for it, of course; poor old bag of bones.” Daisy took a thoughtful puff of her pipe. “You know, Old Grim possessed a rare empathy. It’s probably what made him so good at reaping. Anyway, I forgave him quickly – he was very likable. He’d been quite burnt out at the time, as I recall. I imagine it was on account of all the plague.”
“No children,” said Finley, “That is such a terrible shame. And so young, too.” Apparently, Finely hadn’t started to pay enough attention to notice that the woman he was sympathizing with was also completely fleshless.
“Not that young,” interjected Stag. “It was actually quite old to be a childless woman. For that time, anyway.”
“Yeah? And what would you know about it antler-head? I’ll thank you not to trivialize my pain with your boring historical details. If say I was young, then I was. Anyway, I was actually there. Don’t remember any funny looking deer hanging about at the time.”
Stag decided not to bring up the fact that, as he had been killed by a band of prehistoric humans, he’d literally been around for all of human history. He wasn’t being polite, more that he didn’t want to get trapped in a conversation where he’d have to reflect on the past. He really didn’t like the past. It had been awful. The present wasn’t looking that promising, either.
Haldrick was blushing. “But that means you’re… naked.”
“C’mon,” protested Finley, “won’t someone show me this woman? How about you skeleton, do you know what woman they’re talking about?” Clearly, Finley had already forgotten that he had just been talking to her. It was understandable, he’d become distracted by his reflection again, his concentration only broken by the word ‘naked’, and the knowledge that a young woman was involved.
“I feel like we might be getting a little off topic,” said Mamma Universe. “Perhaps we could get back to the issue of why so many ghosts seem to be hanging around? Specifically, what do you know about it Daisy? I did create the position of Death to deal with it, after all. I was happy to let a few slide through the cracks every now and then, like these two here,” Mamma Universe indicated Haldrick and Finley, “but it’s becoming unworkable.”
“I don’t see the problem,” Daisy observed. “So we miss a few every now and then? Makes sense that over time it would seem like there are more of them. So what if the dead start to outnumber the living? Who cares if they all want to talk to their relatives at once, or haunt a few places? The mediums and psychics aren’t complaining, it’s been good for business. Even the fake ones are making a killing.” Daisy paused to laugh at her own joke. “Besides, I’ve only been Death for a couple of centuries. You should talk to Old Grim, he had the job before me, left plenty of spooks behind when he retired, too. He was a hard worker, though. Strange that he would leave so many roaming the Earth. Perhaps you should talk to the guy that had the job before him. Or the one before that, even.”
“How many Deaths have there been?” The news that there had been several Deaths came as something of a revelation to Haldrick. Mostly because, in all the time he had been dead, he hadn’t seen even one. That hadn’t bothered him too much, but since he’d been recruited to help Mamma Universe-the-Witch-Hag figure out what was happening with all these recalcitrant dead, he’d come to understand that this was not how things were supposed to go.
“I don’t know,” Stag answered, “perhaps a few thousands.”
“Thousands? That seems like rather a lot.”
“Yes, I suppose it does.”
Haldrick and Stag fell silent for a moment. Mamma Universe was obviously starting to lose patience with Daisy.
“Look, this is becoming very tedious,” Mamma Universe was barely able to keep herself from giving the skeletal woman a good thump. “I don’t care if you do not think yourself responsible. I don’t even care at this point if you are. But let’s assume that it’s not your fault, or the fault of any of your predecessors – all of whom you know I cannot possibly ask questions of. Just answer me this, when you have gone to collect the ghosts, and when you have taken them to the departure point, have you noticed anything that might give some clue as to why they are not crossing over to the other side?”
“I ain’t saying nothing if you’re going to talk to me like that.” Daisy folded her arms across her ribcage and gritted her pipe between her teeth in defiance. Her eye sockets fumed aromatic petulance.
“Damn you Miss Death, you will give up your secrets to me….”
“Stag, I’m curious.” Haldrick wanted to pick up the thread of their conversation about the long line of Deaths.
“Are you? What about?”
“Only, I’d always sort of thought Death was a permanent position. Well, until he… I mean, she… didn’t show up to reap me. Then I just assumed that an anthropomorphic Death had been a myth. You know? A silly story to make us all afraid of an already scary life-phase. How come there’s been so many?”
Stag thought about the question. “Well, the truth is, it was supposed to be a permanent job, much like mine is. Mamma Universe doesn’t like to pay close attention to things, so she rarely bothers to think long term when she has to solve a problem. Bore’s her, she says. It used to be that the dead just took themselves off to wherever it is they are supposed to end up, no questions asked. I forget exactly when it started, but one day some of them stopped. Made things a bit messy, actually. Once it had become untidy enough, Mamma Universe located a soul – one that was going to crossover without difficulty – and gave it the job of guiding the ones that hadn’t managed to leave into that last mystery.” Stag gave Haldrick a stern look. “Don’t ask me what that mystery is, I don’t know. Mamma Universe doesn’t, either.”
“Okay, I won’t ask about the mystery. Does raise some more questions, though. Like–“
“You want to know about why there have been so many Deaths or not?”
Well, yes. I do. But–“
“No ‘buts’. If you want to know the story of Deaths, you need to shut your face-hole. I’m not going over this again later.”
“Sorry. Please go on.”
Stag waited to make sure that Haldrick really was going to keep any holes in his face shut. When it became clear that no holes were opening, he continued:
“Seemed like being Death would be easy work. Turned out it wasn’t. The first Death just started to wear out – high stress he said. Eventually, he stopped doing his job altogether, and just sort of sulked about. Mamma Universe went to talk to him – see if she couldn’t convince him to start work again – but it was to no avail. So, they struck a deal. If he could find a soul like himself – one that would’ve crossed over without help – he could retire and go to wherever he was headed when she’d stopped him. Of course, he’d have to give the same deal to whatever soul he found. That soul, when it wanted to retire, would have to give the same deal to the next one, and so on. Until he found a replacement, though, he had to agree to go back to work. Needless to say, he found a successor very quickly.”
“But why didn’t the first Death just leave when he got tired? Couldn’t he just have taken off without the Witch-Ha… I mean Mamma Universe noticing?”
“Same reason I can’t leave the job she gave me.”
“Really? What’s that?”
“She’s a tricky bitch.”
“I don’t understand.”
Stag sighed, he was going to have to explain something that, like the past, he prefered not to think about. “She gets you to agree to the task you’re being offered. She doesn’t force you. There are no threats made. She just convinces you that you are being offered the coolest opportunity, ever. What she doesn’t tell you, is that you can’t stop doing your task without her agreement. And she never agrees. Trust me, I’ve tried. She claims it’s too complicated to release me from my contract, plays havoc with the fabric of the Cosmos, blah, blah, blah.”
“But she made a deal with the first Death. How come he got one and you didn’t?”
“I don’t know,” said Stag, honestly. “But If I had to guess, I’d wager it has to do with the danger involved when Death hangs around and doesn’t clear out the lost souls. ‘Fabric of the Cosmos’ and all that.”
“So why don’t you just stop working. I mean, if you want out? She’d have to let you go then, surely?”
“My soul is more evolved than a human’s – probably because of the vegetarian diet I had when I was alive.” Stag Developed a very smug expression. “I never wear out, and even if I did nothing at all for the rest of eternity, my presence still performs an important function. I did try once. Got bored after the first eight-hundred years. I ended up just doing my job to keep myself entertained.”
“I see. But human souls are different?”
“Yes. They rot. Does terrible things to the Universe’s complexion… probably. Okay, I don’t know what a whole lot of rotting human souls does, but I know it’s bad. It’s the whole reason there’s a Death in the first place.” Stag looked at Haldrick with empathy. “I’m sorry to say, it looks very much like your soul is starting to turn a bit sour. Been a ghost long?”
Haldrick felt sick. He was starting to rot? Really? How long had he been dead? Surely not long enough to go even slightly fetid. He tried to hold in his panic. “Not that long. Three or four-hundred years, at the most.”
Stag looked troubled. “No. You’re right, that isn’t very long. How odd. You should still be fairly unblemished at this point. Almost as pristine as that new one over ther–.” The ‘new one’, otherwise known as Finley Jansen Guildersand, was gazing out the window. Actually out of the window, not at his reflection. It was one of those rare moments when he seemed to be paying attention to something other than himself. A moment so rare, in fact, that it had prevented Stag from finishing his sentence. “What do you think he’s looking at?” Stag queried. “I say, Guildersand, what are you looking at?”
“I don’t know,” Finley replied, uncertainly. “I thought I saw someone out there in the garden. They’re gone now, but it reminded me of a television show I created back in my broadcasting days.”
Mamma Universe and Daisy stopped fighting. They looked worried. Well, Mamma Universe did, Daisy just looked like a skeleton with a bad tobacco addiction. Nevertheless, both were obviously concerned. It shouldn’t be possible for anyone – without being accompanied by either Daisy or Mamma Universe – to get anywhere near Miss Daisy Wheelwright’s Death Cottage.
“This is important Finley,” Mamma Universe said slowly, “try to pay attention to what I’m saying. Pretend it is about you…” she paused for a second. “Finley, this question is completely about you: What did this ‘someone’ look like?”
“It’s the strangest thing,” Finley began, “But… well, it looked like an alien from that show I mentioned.”
“Are you sure?” Stag was worried now, too.
“Quite sure, I was famed for my powers of observation when I was alive. Definitely an alien.” Finley looked back out the window. He had a wistful expression, “I won a well-deserved award for that show.”
But no one was listening. Instead, they were all watching Mamma Universe, who seemed – in whatever form she appeared to them – flustered.
“Alright then, Daisy,” Mamma Universe finally said. Her voice was calm, matter-of-fact, measured. “I think we can take this up later. I just have to pop out for a bit and check on something.”
Mamma Universe wasn’t seen again for several weeks.
END OF PART THREE