Maryann was contemplating the nature of death when she realized there was another person in the room.
There was her uncle, of course, festooned in all the machinery of life. Pumps whirred, and machinery hummed, and electronic things beeped, and her uncle’s chest rose and fell ever so slowly. He had been hearty once, and had wasted away in mockery of it, so that the broad lines of his face stood against the withered arms that protruded from his hospital gown.
Excluding him, though, there was a man sitting to the side, in one of the chairs she’d thought was empty but clearly wasn’t. He was a cool dark pit of presence, unmoving but for the touch of his fingers against a hard-bound book in some logographic language foreign to her. He had to be, Maryann thought, her age or barely older, though at twenty he would barely be ‘man’ instead of ‘boy’.
He wore a mourner’s suit, double-breasted with ghostly chalk stripes, over a shirt so deeply blue or black it drank in the light like a glossy void over his heart. His tie was precisely the red of fresh blood, so distractingly so that for a moment she saw it as a great gaping wound, and that gave her a start that made her heart catch somewhere in her breast.
He looked very much, she thought as her breath recovered, like someone who had meant to be a poet or a mathematician but had accidentally become an undertaker. He was slender and not at all tall, and the suit gave him, a melancholic air, as did the way the room’s lights cast his shadow up behind him into the corner of the room.
He had round-rimmed shaded glasses, fitted very close to the face, that reminded faintly her of some movie or another and gave a note of unclarity to him. It took Maryann a moment or two to realize he had looked up at her through them, and before she could summon her composure he said: “You seemed to be busy thinking, and I didn’t want to interrupt.”
“Oh,” she said. “How long have you been—?”
“Before you came in,” he said. His voice was deep and placid.
Maryann looked him over, black-on-black with splash of red, and realized that he had been sitting there all along. Somehow in her thoughts of her uncle she and her eyes had drifted past him, a half an hour before. “Sorry,” she said, without feeling, and without moving.
“It’s all right,” the man said. “I was… I only know him through work,” he said, and he glanced at her uncle strung in the web of respiration that crowned the bed. “Not even really properly. My predecessor knew him better, but I’ve only just started and I’m already behind.” There was a tightness at his mouth, and for a moment the coolness of his face looked like a hard-forged but brittle mask.
“Oh,” Maryann said to fill the space. She looked away and wondered if she looked like that. She’d cried after the accident, and then not all for days, as thought the tears had just run out. There was a spring that had wound up in her and burst, and in its absence she had gone about the motions with all the fires damped and the curtains drawn.
The man set a tall black umbrella across his knees that Maryann hadn’t noticed. “I felt like I had to visit,” he said, with his thumbs gliding across it. “It wasn’t fair. The old man just up and left everything and—” His voice rose and then he stopped himself, and took a breath in and let it out. “Sorry,” he said, and he set the umbrella aside again as though he had only just noticed he was holding it. “I had to visit him first. Before he—well.”
Maryann knew her uncle would die. It was inevitable, even for whatever miracle had left him intact enough for detritus that surrounded him to staple him to life. There was just too much gone. He would never wake again, they had told eher, and it would be another miracle if he ever breathed on his own. If the accident had happened differently, there might have been some hope, but that half-state had already been resolved: the box was open, and the cat was dead and only not yet buried.
Her heart was empty, but the tears began again. She found herself clutching a handkerchief to her face that the man held out. It wasn’t black, or red, or an elegant bone-white she thought might suit him, but a lurid plaid that contrasted so sharply with his suit that her throat caught in hiccuping laughs that poured out between sobs. She crumped gradually against him. Only when she had poured herself out again did she recover the time he’d taken to offer his arm to her.
“Death sucks, doesn’t it?” he said. Through the suit she felt no heartbeat, but he was warm like a banked fire, and she wanted so desperately to cling to him that she pulled herself away and sat, so abruptly that she almost fell. Some of his mask had peeled away, showing a tenseness at his eyebrows that almost made hers ache. “I think that,” he said, “and then I see him, and…”
“It’s not fair,” Maryann said. She stared at the floor, with the handkerchief clutched between damp fingers. She still felt empty, but her voice had almost cracked. There was some word she couldn’t remember, when the left brain and the right acted out of unison, and she wondered if she had developed that condition all at once, and the thought was so absurd that it gave her a kind of uncertain vertigo.
“If it was fair,” the main said. “If it was fair,” he repeated, after a long pause, and finally added: “If it was fair you’d deserve what you get. I don’t think I’d like that very much.”
“Then what’s the point?” she asked.
“I’m still working on that,” he said, with a half-hidden honesty in his voice that coaxed a choked laugh from Maryann. “I’ve never been very good with philosophy. The existentialists might be right, but they all talk too much. Books and books of—’life is what you make of it’.”
“And death?” she said, and for a moment she hoped he’d have an answer that would still the shaking in her hands, and then she clamped that hope down tight before it could spread.
The man looked at her, and his lips pursed. “God shaped clay into a little speck of primordial slime and breathed into it,” he said, and his expression drifted into unsureity. “About… four billion years ago, I think? Thus was life—brilliant little automatons, molecules copying themselves, all by accident. Or close enough to an accident, with everything after that little speck in the mud.” His hand was on the grip of his umbrella, and he wobbled it back and forth balanced on its metal tip. “But it was never designed. It just was, that’s all. And… and evolution cares about averages and children, not… people.”
“That’s a shit answer,” Maryann said.
“It is,” he said. “It’s awful. It’s just… when someone breaks, when someone breaks that far, you can’t fix them. Not without things nobody’s invented yet.” His face sunk, and then he asked, very seriously but with a quirk at the edge of his mouth: “Do you think a dinosaur ever tried to play chess against Death?”
“What?” she said, and her eyebrows went up, and a bark of confused laughter escaped her lips.
“You know, the… pale face, hood…” The man gestured around his face, and for a moment she could picture his glasses as silvered circles under a dark mantle. “There’s—”
“I’ve seen The Seventh Seal,” Maryann said.
His eyebrows edged up behind his glasses. “Most people haven’t,” he said. “But do you think a dinosaur ever tried that? Or a gorilla, back before we clumsy man-creatures went trampling around on everything?”
She frowned at him and crossed her hands together on her lap. At some point she had slid forward on the chair, sitting nearly on the edge, and she sat back again. “Don’t be stupid,” she said.
“But that’s the problem, isn’t it?” he said. “If we were stupid, death would just be… death. We wouldn’t think so much about it. We wouldn’t have to know why.”
“Elephants mourn their dead,” Maryann said. Something in the conversation had set a faint ache at the back of her neck, though her heart was still empty. If she’d been able to bring herself to care, she would have started to find him annoying.
His thumb tapped against the grip of his umbrella. “But do they fear death?” he asked. “I’ve never talked to one. I’d like to, if I could learn the language. Do they grieve because the dead are dead, or do they grieve because the dead have departed for that undiscovered country?” He paused, and laid his head forward enough that Maryann saw a glint of blue eyes under the glasses. “Sorry. That’s not very helpful. It’s just… I think it’s a very human thing to think about it so much.”
“It doesn’t really matter,” Maryann said, and she looked at the broken frame of her uncle and then looked away, and cleared a tightness from her throat. “You can’t win the game. You can just… drag it out for a while. And I don’t—” Her voice drew into a deep shudder. With her eyes closed she could see her uncle slowly aging into dust, his eyes open with white-blind cataracts.
“It isn’t fair,” the man said. While she had her eyes closed he’d moved to stand by her uncle’s bedside. “Either way. If you live forever there’s always the chance of that… Methuselah, just waiting in the cave to die so soft rains can come. But death comes unlovely and so early to so many.” He looked across at her, and in the light his glasses became dark pools set into his face in place of eyes, but his mouth was a thin line and not at all mysterious in the fragility of it. “If—if you could choose who would live or die, but not who would suffer, what would you do?”
Maryann considered that, and the clock up on the tip of the wall ticked slow. “I don’t know,” she said, and somehow it left her feeling very tired to think about. “I guess it’s a philosopher thing, but I don’t know how you’d decide which is right. You’d just have to… look at it, one at a time, maybe.”
The man looked down at her uncle, and there was briefly a tiredness in the corners of his face that made him look as tired as she felt. “That’s what most people say. I… I really should have known him better, before it came to this.”
“Do you talk about death often?” Maryann said, and for a moment she wondered, because the man had never said what his work was. “It’s not like it’s your fault, anyway.” That was the worst part of it. There wasn’t anyone to point the finger at, except maybe her uncle himself, and he’d already received his punishment.
“It feels like it is,” the man said. “‘Logos is deeper than logic,’ if you want the quote. It’s a good one. Very pithy.” He had his umbrella against his side like a cane, and with his other hand he reached to touch her uncle’s forehead very gently. “It’s not fair. Not at all.” Machines began beeping in confused surprise. The shadows, Maryann saw, made the man’s umbrella look very much like a sheathed sword.
“Why?” Maryann asked, and she turned her face, because when he looked at her the man’s glasses were like dark pits set into his face, and the skin around his teeth was drawn unbearably tight and unhappy.
The wailing of the machines and electronics rose. The man stepped away from the bed, in a slow circle around Maryann something like fear or unsureity. Her body was leaden: to stand would have been a miracle of will. She was crying again, she faintly discovered by the wetness on her cheeks, when he spoke again.
“Someone has to do it,” he said, finally. “I hope you’re angry. I hope you are. I hope it gets better. I don’t want to do this forever, you know?”
“Go,” Maryann said, and she swallowed hard against the tears. “Please.”
When the nurse shortly entered, Maryann was alone, with her thoughts on the nature of death, and with the body that had been her uncle.