It had been a long time, Enoch reflected, since they’d last met. Their paths had crossed many times, as the paths of Reapers so often did, but it had been a long time. Perhaps a century or two? They’d all been muddling around Europe during the Thirty Years War, as the humans called it, so perhaps it had been then.
He was calling himself Charles now, Enoch had heard, and it was as good a name as any, he supposed. Common and grand all at once. Peasant and king both wore its mantle. A good name for a Reaper, then, as a Reaper saw no boundaries between the two.
Charles, he remembered, was the type to change names often. They all did sometimes, whether out of boredom or necessity, but Charles was prone to fits of pique. Of change, which was a bit unusual in their profession.
That was the trouble, wasn’t it? Pique.
Enoch knocked at the door, fighting the urge to readjust his hat on his head where he stood. It was an important errand, he reminded himself sternly, and he was going to have to be firm about it. “Charles?” he called. “Open the door.”
He could hear movement inside, a sound like wind chimes and old bones, and it took him a second to place the sound before the door swung open. That second, unfortunately, was all Charles needed to hurl a half-drunk bottle of wine at him.
“Cur! Cad! All — all sorts of other things, too! That’s what you are!”
A wine bottle against bones. That was what it had been, of course. Like he hadn’t heard that sound enough throughout the years. “Charles, be reasonable.”
“No! No, there’s no reasoning with it, Enoch. There’s no reason in it at all!” Charles said, holding another bottle at the ready.
Enoch raised his skeletal hands before him entreatingly. “No reason in what, Charles? You’re not making any sense.”
“No reason in Death, of course.”
Charles looked at him for a moment, a righteous fury clinging to every bone of his body, and then it was like the invisible strings holding him together had been cut. He sagged against the door frame. “I’m tired, Enoch.”
And wasn’t that just the way that Charles had about him? Ever mercurial. Death didn’t get tired. But Charles did.
“I know, Charles. If you’d just let me in, maybe I could help you—”
“No!” Charles said, straightening up again, his grip on his bottle tightening. “No, I’ve had enough of you! Of all of you! No one comes in, and that’s final! You can’t pull me out again!”
“Begone!” Charles thundered and it was all Enoch could do to dodge the second bottle.
A can followed, and then a glass, and Enoch only barely managed to escape with his cloak intact as a second barrage was begun.
He’d have to go back, he knew. Down on the street below, Enoch straightened his hat, readjusted his coat. He wasn’t the first and he wouldn’t be the last. But sooner or later, he knew, he’d have to go back.
Charles, after all, had stopped going out.
* * *
The life of a Reaper was a fairly simple one, all said. It wasn’t like the lives of the humans, not by any means. They were tiny little flames that burned fast and bright, blink and you’ll miss it, and they felt everything so thoroughly that it consumed them in the end. Reapers, they weren’t like that.
Reapers were steady. They were not eternal, as some humans believed, but changed with the eons, if perhaps not the decades. No one set of bones could last forever, but they were fairly durable. Enoch himself had seen a good few centuries. He’d been “born”, as they said, back around when the Romans were falling out of fashion, and he had promptly gone to work.
A lot of them had been needed at the time. There were so many wars. He remembered them well, learning on the job as he’d felt the telltale tug towards his next Intended, one after the other after the other. He remembered looking out across the battlefield and seeing countless other Reapers doing the same thankless job.
He’d learned to take their ghostly hands in his own, to pull them away from their abandoned casings so they could be free to escape into the open air above. He did not know where they went, if they went, but he knew that their time fighting had ceased. And it was his job to free the butterfly from the chrysalis.
So to speak.
The years had come and Enoch had learned. He learned the land. He learned the names of his compatriots. He learned the best way to free a soul without damaging it hardly at all.
He met Charles.
Charles wasn’t like the others, not exactly. There was an uncomfortably human spark behind his eye ridges sometimes, and Enoch hadn’t been sure what to make of him at first.
The first time they’d met, he’d been whistling. He’d had a different name back then, of course, they all had, but it was all the same in the end. Charles was Charles, and as he’d reached into the water to help a soul back out, he’d been whistling a soft, mournful tune. The soul seemed to bob in time with it even as it dissipated, and Enoch had felt himself drawn near.
It was the same tug he felt when he needed to be somewhere. When he needed to take someone. It was something just behind his breastbone that was intrinsic to him as anything, and it had always been drawn towards Charles like a compass to north.
The two of them were friends, of a sort. Very dear friends, of a sort. When their paths crossed in the line of work, Charles would tilt his head just so in acknowledgement, in appreciation, and when all was said and done, Enoch would go to him. They’d sit for hours in whatever tatty accommodations the two of them had scared up, and they’d talk.
There was so much to catch up on between the decades. So much wine to be shared between friends. So many queer thoughts in Charles’s head, thoughts that Enoch never would have dreamed up on his own. Not just life and death, that was the bread and butter that both of them shared.
No, Charles would dream of other things. Of love and laughter and song and tears. Revolution and sorrow and joy and revenge. Impossible things. Human things.
Enoch, who had only ever dreamed of his work and the places he went to do it, would sit there and listen, somewhere between unnerved and rapt, and he would drink his wine.
Perhaps he should have put a stop to it sooner. Those thoughts had a way of festering in Charles’s empty old head, like old bread left for too long in the cupboard, and sometimes he’d do things. Wonderful things. Horrible things. Wondrous, impossible things.
But this thing, this one thing, was too far. Too far for any of them. It was the one thing, the only thing, that none of them could transgress.
Charles had stopped doing his job.
Enoch had felt it before any of them, he privately believed. He’d felt that odd little ripple in the tug, like it didn’t know where to lead him. Like it wanted to take him in a dozen directions at once.
Souls were being reassigned, he realized later. That was what it had to have been. Charles wasn’t doing his job and now all the rest of them had slack to pick up.
He had heard, roundabouts, that the others had gone to see Charles. To ask him what in blazes he was playing at. To see if he was all right. To try and convince him to go back to work and do his job properly.
Enoch, for his part, had simply done his job. He’d taken twice as many souls, had watched them dissipate like smoke with emotionless almost-eyes, and had waited. He’d just sort of assumed, in a back of the mind sort of way, that Charles would call upon him. Charles usually did in these situations. In these sticky, not becoming at all of a Reaper, situations.
But Charles hadn’t.
Enoch had waited and he’d waited until the day that the tug came and it felt like a single drop of rain falling into a glass pool. He felt the reverberations in his bones, and they’d called to him to go.
For the first time in perhaps their entire lives, Enoch had gone to Charles, had sought him out. For what? He wasn’t quite sure yet.
Not for a glass bottle to the head, though, he could say that for sure.
Still, despite the reception he’d received, Enoch knew that he would eventually return. His bones still shook as he attempted to rest them, and the tug inside him never pulled with the clarity it once had. He felt muddled inside. The natural order of things felt muddled as well.
And it all came down to Charles “vacation” that had gone on for far too long already.
Even as he walked away, black coat flicking behind him in the wind, Enoch was planning his next visit.
* * *
The next time Enoch was able to get away from his work was a few weeks later. He had a sudden, wild thought as he approached the door that maybe he might see little tick marks on the door to show how many had come and failed. But there was nothing so silly when he finally got there. Just a plain white door hiding a Reaper away from the world.
He rang the bell and waited. Then rang it again. He had the pull clutched in his hands, ready to ring again, when the door finally opened. Charles stood there, no emotion in the way he held his bones, and gazed at him. “Enoch. You’ve come back.”
“You know I had to, Charles.”
“I know you wanted to,” Charles returned simply. He sighed heavily. “Well, you’d better come in. I know you’ll just keep ringing otherwise.”
There was a slump of defeat to his shoulders as he stepped back from the door, and Enoch couldn’t help but wonder how many visits he must have had to wear him down to this point. And then he caught sight of the apartment.
Charles wasn’t a tidy Reaper. Enoch knew that already. But he’d never seen him living in such abject dishevelment. Empty wine bottles were strewn about the apartment, many of them leaking onto the creaking floorboards below, and papers and wrappers littered the floor. He could see books with torn-out pages on the tables and little slivers of broken glass underfoot. Glass couldn’t hurt either of them, not really, but it was still a bit unnerving. “Charles…”
“I don’t to hear it, Enoch. I’ve heard it before and you know that I despise repetition.”
“But Charles, your books…”
Many Reapers had vices, and for Charles, it had always been books. Most Reapers weren’t particularly concerned with human knowledge, limited as it was, but Charles had always devoured them like they were candy. It was the ideas, he always insisted, rather than the facts behind them. Charles was no collector; he often sold portions of his collection to make room for new volumes. But the idea of tearing apart his books… They were the only part of his life to which Enoch had seen him pay care.
Charles glanced down at the pile of brutalized pages and his expression briefly darkened before smoothing into obliqueness once again. “They didn’t contain the answers I needed.”
“And what answers, pray tell, do you need?” Enoch asked. That, he suspected, was the real question.
Charles looked at him for a long, long moment, unnervingly steady, and then he made the same casual movement towards a chair that he had so many times before. “Sit, Enoch. I suspect we’ll be talking for quite a while.”
Obedient to the end, Enoch did so. “Charles—”
Charles waved him off as he took the chair opposite. “No, no, Enoch. You’ve come here to hear me say my piece. You know it and I know it. It’s the same thing that all the others wanted, but… well, I think we both knew it would always end with me and you. Didn’t we?”
Enoch opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again. “Yes. I think we did.”
It was a bit hard to tell with Reapers, but Enoch still knew, intrinsically, that Charles was not looking at him, but at the empty space beside him. There was a peculiar weight to Charles’s gaze, and he did not presently feel it. It was almost a loss.
“A few months ago I went to the hospital down on Market Street to take a soul. Routine job, really. My Intended fell from a window and, well, there was really only so much that could be done.”
That, Enoch knew all too well. Their human charges were so terrifyingly fragile.
“But… Enoch, he was late.”
That was a shock. “You must be joking, Charles. Neither Reapers nor Intendeds are ever late.”
“I am not joking, Enoch. Not about this. I stood there and waited by his bed as they performed emergency surgery. Five minutes. Ten. Twenty. It was almost an hour after his due date that he finally passed. And Enoch — Enoch, they very nearly saved him.”
Enoch was quiet for a moment, mulling that over. “Humans are getting very good at their medicine…” he said haltingly.
Charles nodded. “They are. Tell me, Enoch. Have you ever spent the day in one of their hospitals?”
Enoch shook his head. “No, of course not. Why would I do that?”
Charles clacked his teeth and Enoch knew that on a human, that expression would be a wry grin. “I have. I’ve been doing it a lot lately. They’re just so… so damn vehement in their desire to live. I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted anything as much as some of those doctors wanted to save their patients. As much as their patients wanted to live.”
And this, this was just Charles all over. Most Reapers didn’t worry about things like “wanting” things. Reapers didn’t want. They did. Only Charles got worked up over feelings and desires and dreams.
“They’ve gotten so good at it, Enoch. The strides they’ve made. Even you must have noticed that they’re getting harder to take.”
Enoch had certainly noticed a drop off. He remembered what medicine had been, in the past. Poisons and faith and luck were as much use in a human bedchamber as medicine. He remembered the cruelty of the cutting, in the beginning. But Charles was right. Things were changing. They could sleep during their surgeries now, and hygiene was improving by leaps and bounds. No longer did the Reapers sup on infection. “I have noticed, Charles. Things are certainly harder.”
“For us, perhaps,” Charles said, his voice going flinty. “I think perhaps the humans are just starting to breathe for the first time. And — and don’t you think they’ve earned it?”
Enoch just looked at him. “I think we both know better than anyone that no one earns breath, Charles. We each only get what we’re allotted. Earning has nothing to do with it.” Life was luck. They both knew that. Even Reapers had no control over death. All they received was notice as soon as souls passed out of the realm of hope.
Charles just looked back at him, his gaze even. “On the way out of the hospital, do you know what I did? I stopped in a room where a woman was giving birth.”
“At the hospital?” Enoch asked. He was used to retrieving souls from midwives, not surgeons.
“Yes. They do it now, sometimes. There was some sort of complication and — well, I suppose she didn’t have much choice.”
“And?” Enoch asked. “Did you take that soul as well?”
Charles shook his head. “That’s the unflinching cruelty of a Reaper for you, Charles. No, the child did not die. The doctors saved both mother and child, and to them — why, it was a miracle.”
Miracles happened, just as disasters did. Reapers knew that well. Enoch waited.
“And, Enoch… I looked into that child’s eyes and I could see it. That tiny spark. That drive to live. That one remarkable emotion is so much stronger than anything we’ve ever felt, the two of us. The fear in its mother during the birth. The abject relief after it was over. We know nothing like a human’s grief, Charles. Nothing of their dreams and aspirations. We have never felt what they feel.”
“And a good thing,” Enoch interjected. “We’d never be able to do our jobs otherwise.”
Charles leaned slowly forward in his seat until he could rest his chin on one bony fist. “Enoch. I can’t do my job now. I looked at that child and I thought about every human that’s fought for its life. The inventors and the healers and the teachers and — and their whole communities. Humans dedicate so much of their lives to the continuing survival of their race and in that one brief moment, I could see it. I could see why they had all sacrificed so much to ensure that a babe like this could be safely born.” He paused. “I could see the light in it, Enoch. And I can no longer snuff that light out. I have no right.”
Enoch frowned at him. “Charles, you’re being absurd. You have every right. You’re a Reaper. It is quite literally your job to take souls.”
“There are dirty jobs, Enoch. Terrible jobs.”
“Jobs that need to be done,” Enoch pressed.
“Do they?” Charles shot back.
“Yes! Of course they do! We’re not killing the humans, Charles. They are very capable of that on their own. It’s simply our job to release them when they’re done.”
“But who says when they’re done? Us? The doctors?” He scoffed a little, and Enoch felt something fold in on itself inside him. “That tug you’re so fond of mentioning?”
“Yes,” Enoch said. “Something knows when they can no longer live. And that something calls for us to take them from their bodies when their bodies can no longer sustain them. We are merely a function of life—”
“Just like the earth and the flowers and worms. You don’t hate them for eating discarded husks. You can’t hate us for discarding them. We weren’t the ones that passed judgment. We simply separate the wheat from the chaff. The good from the rubbish.”
“The rubbish, Enoch, really?”
Now it was Enoch’s turn to snort. “And why not, Charles? They’re not in there anymore.”
“Not after you take them out, no.”
“And they would not be able to stay if I did not. Their soul would simply be poisoned by a festering shell.”
“You don’t know that, Enoch.”
“I do,” Enoch said, simple and quiet. He did. They both did. They knew it the same way that they knew what the tug meant for a human soul. The same way that they both knew that a Reaper did not simply quit its job. “What I don’t know is what happens to them after we release them. Not even we can know that. But we don’t know that it’s bad.”
“Humans believe it’s bad.”
“Not all humans.” Enoch stretched out just enough to take Charles’s fist in his hand. “Some of them are ready.”
Charles tilted his head forward, just enough that Enoch could no longer meet his eyes. “Most are not. Most of them cling so tightly to life, Enoch. They love it so dearly. They are — they are so terribly afraid of what comes next.”
Enoch breathed in, the facsimile that Reapers enjoyed, then out again. “That’s why you whistle to them, isn’t it?” he asked.
Charles didn’t answer right away. Then, “They… they deserve comfort, Enoch. They feel things so much more deeply than we do. No being deserves to feel the emotions they do when they die.”
Enoch felt bones rattle beneath his fingers, and realized with a start that Charles was shaking. And then he realized something else, something much more marvelous and perilous and terrifying all at once. “You feel things now, too. Don’t you, Charles? Don’t you lie to me. You’re starting to — you’re starting to feel them, too.”
Charles opened his fist slowly, carefully, so he could tangle his phalanges with Enoch’s. “Perhaps I have been infected. Perhaps, after all this time, they’ve finally passed their sickness onto me.” He gave a short little laugh. “Perhaps I’ve earned it.”
Enoch looked down at their joined hands, then up at Charles. He had never felt love or desire or hatred the way that the humans did. But for the first time in his long, long life, Enoch realized that he could feel fear. “You’re not going back to work. Are you, Charles?”
Charles shook his head slowly. “No. I don’t think I am, Enoch.”
Enoch looked at Charles and he thought about human bones, the way they could wear away after a time. The way their hard coating was only thinly protecting something vulnerable inside. He looked at Charles’s bones now and could see that they were starting to look worn. “You can’t just stop, Charles.”
“I believe I have, Enoch.”
“No. No, no,” Enoch said, shaking his head, perhaps a little desperately. “We have a purpose, Charles. Like the sun and the earth and the rain. We have a purpose.”
“I know, Enoch,” Charles said. “I know what you do is essential to the world. As you have been essential to me.”
Not for the first time, Enoch wished for eyes just so that he could close them. “What do you feel, Charles? What — what is it like?” he asked.
“I feel… pain,” Charles said slowly. “When I watch their agonized faces, I feel pain. And sorrow. Guilt.” His fingers tightened incrementally on Enoch’s. “Loneliness. Secondhand joy, when something good happens to them, but never any of my own. Maybe I haven’t earned the good ones yet. Maybe I never will. It feels…” He paused a moment, rolling the word around in his mouth like the exotic flavor it was. “It feels awful. Like my bones will shake apart with the force of it. Like there’s an invisible hand pressed down on my chest and all my limbs are far heavier than they should be. All of it is just… just so heavy.”
Enoch stroked Charles’s fingers with his bony thumb. “And is there anything I can do to lighten the load, my friend?”
“No,” Charles responded, and there was no doubt in his voice. “But I will not further burden myself by doing what is now unthinkable. I will not take the lives that they have fought so hard to protect.”
“But your life…”
“Reapers don’t have lives, Enoch. You know that. We just live. And then we don’t anymore. There’s no one to fetch us. No one to — what is that you say sometimes? Free the butterfly? No one is coming. There is only you and me and soon there will be only you.”
That was one of the other things that they both intrinsically knew. One of those basic truths that was engraved on the insides of their bones. A Reaper who had ceased to function would cease to exist.
“But I…” Don’t want to be alone. Enoch froze for a moment, frozen with the scandal of it all. Wanting something. Wanting anything.
“I think bones can only last so long, Enoch. We don’t have the soft parts of humans, for better or for worse. We don’t have their souls or their kindness or the love of life that can only come from the fear of losing it. Our only softness comes from within our bones. And that can only be revealed once our bones wear away. I am… worn, Enoch.”
“I don’t…” Enoch paused for a moment, gathering the shards of himself. It was Charles. It was only Charles. It was always Charles. He could say it to him. “I don’t want you to go.”
Charles squeezed their hands together one more time, acknowledging his efforts with one simply movement. “That’s how they feel every time, Enoch. Every single time. And I can’t bear to look them in the eyes and see it anymore. Their lives are so beautiful.”
“You’ve always loved them,” Enoch said, and even as he said it, he knew it was true. The books, the wine, the people-watching. Charles had always been capable of love, and he’d loved their charges. Loved them until it consumed him.
“They’re worthy of being loved. And they’re worthy of being mourned. Please — be gentle with them, Enoch.”
“Yes. Yes, I will.”
“And be gentle with yourself.” Charles shifted their hands slightly so he could tap the spot on Enoch’s wrist, right where a human’s heartbeat would be. “Things are changing. You will, too.”
“I won’t say goodbye,” Charles said. “We never do.”
“It’s a foolish human custom,” Enoch repeated, rote. But a kind one.
Charles didn’t say goodbye. And no one came to claim him. Enoch simply sat there, holding his hand, until there was no hand left to hold.
Enoch sat there for a long, long while, surrounded by refuse and detritus, evidence of the messy life that had just left the building. Charles’s energy was no longer filling up the room, and Enoch knew with some certainty that he was alone.
He sat there, silent, and he felt, for the first time in his life, something different behind his breastbone. There was no tug. There was only a deep, aching hollowness that had never bothered him before. The emptiness seemed to fill him up inside, pushing out at his ribs and his collar in a pounding beat that was almost like that of a heart. It was — it was loss, he thought. He believed.
He ran his bony fingers through the pile of dust opposite him and felt loss, forbidden and unknown and unwelcome as it was. And he began whistle a soft, mournful tune.