Young Susan and Death

"I mean I'm an ordinary kid!"

"Listen, ordinary kids get a xylophone. They don't just ask their granddad to take his shirt off!"

— Terry Pratchett

Young Susan didn't understand why her parents didn't want her to see her grandfather. Well, it was true that he wasn't actually her real grandfather because he only adopted Susan's mother, but he was a kind and gentle man with a steady job and a nice house. Yes, he was a bit withdrawn and never had any other guests, but he had built her a tree swing and that made him a saint in her book.

Susan went to visit her grandfather. He lived close by. Death was never very far away.

"Grandfather, it's my birthday tomorrow."

SO I'VE HEARD.

"What are you going to get me?"

I CAN'T TELL YOU.

"Could you give me a hint?"

NO, THAT'S AGAINST THE RULES. IT BENDS CAUSALITY AND THE FLOW OF TIME. NO ONE SHOULD KNOW WHAT THEY ARE RECEIVING BEFORE THEY RECEIVE IT. IT'S LIKE TIME TRAVELING.

"You just made that up didn't you?"

NO, IT'S A REAL OCCURRENCE. WORDS HAVE POWER. HAVE YOU EVER NOTICED THAT WHEN YOUR MOTHER SAYS THAT SOMETHING IS TO BE DONE THEN IT ALWAYS GETS DONE? IT'S THE SAME SORT OF THING. CAUSE AND EFFECT. YOU COULD BREAK THE SPACE TIME CONTINUUM.

"That's stupid."

LIFE'S NOT FAIR IS IT?

Susan giggled. "At least Death is fair, right Granddad?"

UM, THANK YOU, BUT I TOLD YOU NOT TO CALL ME GRANDDAD. THAT'S JUST ONE STEP AWAY FROM GRANDPA AND A SHORT SHOT TO GRAMPS. I'M ONLY LETTING YOU GET AWAY WITH THAT BECAUSE IT'S YOUR BIRTHDAY TOMORROW.

"Could you do something for me then?"

NOT IF IT INVOLVES CHOCOLATE. YOUR MOTHER WOULD BE CROSS.

"No chocolate. At least I don't think there is."

RIGHT, TELL ME THEN.

"Well you see…um." Susan blushed and looked at her toes. "I kinda always wanted… um."

YES?

"You're a skeleton, right? Could I see what you look like with your shirt off?"

I… NO ONE HAS EVER ASKED ME THAT.

"Does that mean yes?"

I SUPPOSE I COULD. Death's hooded black robes disintegrated like swirls of ink in water. Susan squeaked and spun around. IS IT REALLY THAT BAD?

"You've got to wear trousers! Mother says it's indecent to see a man without his trousers on!"

OH, BUT I DON'T HAVE ANY. I LIKE CLOTHES THAT ARE FLOWIER. THE STYLE GOES WELL WITH THE SCYTHE.

"I don't care! You have to wear trousers. Put you robes back on and come with me."

Susan led her Grandfather down the dark hallway. Death's house was always dark and spooky. It was part of the job. Death had adopted Susan's mother years ago to try to liven up the place. It didn't work that well. No one actually lives in the house of Death. They just kind of exist.

Susan flung open her father's bedroom door and opened the closet.

"Right then, pick one."

I LIKE THE BLACK

"I think you should wear the blue. They're my favorite, but father doesn't wear them often.

Perhaps he has grown out of them. Do you think they will fit? "

MAYBE

"Wait! Don't change here! You have to go to the bathroom!"

SORRY

Death left and Susan waited impatiently. After a few minutes, she went out into the hallway.

"What's taking you so long?"

ER… THEY DON'T QUITE FIT. I'M A LITTLE THINNER THAN MORT.

"Ok, one second."

Susan ran back to the bedroom, grabbed her dad's belt, and returned to the bathroom door.

"This should help."

CAN YOU HAND IT TO ME? Death put his hand through the door. WHAT IS THIS?

"It's Dad's belt. It keeps his trousers up."

OH…IT LOOKS COMPLICATED… DO YOU KNOW HOW TO PUT IT ON?

Susan thought for a minute. "Not really. You put it through the loops."

HUH, I THINK IT WORKS BUT IT SEEMS VERY IMPRACTICAL.

Death opened the door and stepped into the hall. He had the belt tied in a knot around his spine. Susan's eyes glistened.

"Wow! You really are all bones!"

I'M AFRAID SO.

"But how do you stand up then?"

I HAVE AN ANTHROMORPHIC FIELD.

"You made that up too!"

NOT THIS TIME. PEOPLE BELIEVE I EXIST, SO I MUST EXIST AS THEY BELIEVE ME TO BE.

"Huh?"

I STICK TOGETHER BECAUSE THERE'S MAGIC HOLDING ME UP.

"Magic? Does that mean you can take the magic away? Then you'd fall apart!"

…I SUPPOSE…

"What about just your fingers?"

UM, I DON'T THINK I UNDERSTAND.

"Your bones will still be there but they would just be on the floor."

CONSERVATION OF ENERGY MEANS I CAN'T DO THAT UNLESS I USE GREATER FORCE THAN WHAT IS KEEPING ME TOGETHER.

"Do that then."

… I WILL TRY, BUT I'D RATHER DO THIS OUTSIDE JUST IN CASE I EXPLODE.

Susan looked delighted.

"Will that really happen?"

PROBABLY NOT, BUT I'VE BEEN KNOWN TO DO SOME STRANGE THINGS.

Outside everything was black. In Death's domain black was ubiquitous. Death sat down below a tree and let Susan inspect his bony hand.

"Alright, I suppose that all you have to do is pull hard enough and the bones will come apart, but then it would hurt."

I THINK I HAVE AN IDEA. YOU SHOULD PROBABLY GET BEHIND ME.

"Be careful. It's okay if you can't do it."

YES

"Gently… wait that's too quick!"

HOW CAN YOU TELL?

"You mean you can't?"

SHOULD I?

"It's right there. Can't you see? There's this sort of heat. It looks like something that isn't there."

… ERR… NO, I DON'T SEE IT.

Susan sighed as if seeing things that didn't exist were the easiest thing in the world.

"Look, just do that again. Okay, go."

Susan screamed as Death's whole hand fell to pieces.

"No, no, no! Stop it!"

SORRY.

"Sorry? That's not good enough. Where are all the pieces?"

UM.

Death scooted sideways so Susan could collect the bones.

"Grandfather, why can't you do anything right?"

SORRY. THAT DOESN'T HAPPEN VERY OFTEN

Susan bit one of her nails anxiously and searched the area.

"Some are still missing. I can tell. Did they roll away?" Susan gasped. "What if they exploded? You said you could explode! Mother is going to kill me!"

I HIGHLY DOUBT THAT.

"This is no time to be making jokes! Your whole hand fell apart! You keep looking and I'm gonna start putting these back together again. Do you know how many you have?"

TWENTY-SEVEN

"That's not too bad. I got this. Don't worry."

I'M IN GOOD HANDS

"I said no jokes!"

HOW MANY DO YOU HAVE NOW?

"I got eighteen, no nineteen."

SO HOW MANY ARE WE STILL MISSING?

"Eight, really Granddad, don't you know math?"

I WAS JUST CHECKING. I ONLY FOUND SIX.

"You got two more."

THANK YOU FOR HELPING ME.

"You should learn to do these things on your own. No wonder Albert has to work so hard."

I HAVE MY DUTY TO ATTEND TO.

"You still have to take care of yourself. You work too much."

BUT I'M DEATH. I CAN'T JUST STOP. HERE, I FOUND ANOTHER ONE.

"You're not death, Granddad. You're Death with a big 'D'. There's a difference."

YES, BUT THE PRINCIPLE IS STILL THE SAME. I AM THE GRIM REAPER. I AM WHAT I DO.

Susan sighed and shook her head.

"You just don't get it."

Death sat down next to Susan. She was doing well with the puzzle and had gotten all the fingers right. Death handed her the last bone.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN THEN?

"Death is your name."

I KNOW THAT ALREADY.

Susan accidentally dropped one of the wrist bones she was working on. It landed on the fingers she had already set up and scattered them.

"Rats!" she grumbled irritably.

DO YOU NEED ANY HELP?

"No! I can do it by myself."

SO YOU WERE SAYING?

"Oh, yes, Death is your name. It's not who you are."

YES IT IS.

"I have a friend named Art. No one hangs him on the wall!"

YES BUT I'M DEATH. IF ART WAS A PIECE OF ART THEN HE WOULD BE THE SAME AS HIS NAME.

"How can a person be art?"

THESE ARE MODERN TIMES. YOU'D BE AMAZED AT WHAT PASSES FOR ART THESE DAYS.

"Where does this one go?"

UNDER THOSE TWO.

"Oh, But you're Death and my grandfather at the same time right? So you can be other things too."

LIKE WHAT?

"Like… uh… a ship captain! You could have a boat so that you can go fishing and smuggle cargo and stuff!"

WHY WOULD I WANT TO DO THAT?

"Have you done it before?"

I'VE GONE FISHING, YES.

"But you haven't done any smuggling? Hyacinth says that the merchants are always smuggling."

YOU'RE TELLING ME TO PARTAKE IN ILLEGAL ACTIVITIES JUST BECAUSE I'VE NEVER DONE THEM BEFORE?

"Ummm… maybe not, but you can still have a boat."

I THINK A ROW BOAT WOULD BE NICE. I LIKE RIVERS.

"Yeah, start small. There, I put your hand back together. Try to stick it to your arm."

Death placed the end of his arm on the ground. The bones trembled and snapped back into place. Susan smiled smugly. Death flexed his fingers.

IT WORKED. THANK YOU.

Susan grinned with pride.

"Does it feel right?"

YES

"It doesn't hurt does it?"

I DON'T FEEL PAIN WHEN I DON'T WANT TO.

"Really? Can you feel me touch you?"

IF YOU WANT ME TO, I WILL. I ALWAYS THOUGHT IT RUDE TO HAVE A SENSE OF TOUCH AROUND PEOPLE. I MEAN, THEY DIDN'T GIVE ME PERMISSION TO FEEL THEIR TOUCH. I DON'T LIKE TO IMPOSE.

"That's weird granddad. Humans can't do that."

WHAT IF THE PERSON DIDN'T MEAN TO TOUCH ME? I CAN'T JUST ASSUME THAT THEY WANTED ME TO FEEL THEM TOUCH ME.

"Uh… so does this mean you can feel it or not."

WILL YOU LET ME?

"Of course. You're my grandfather. Mom says I should respect my elders. You're really old so you get extra respect."

Susan climbed into Death's lap and examined the newly rejoined bones in his hand. Death let himself feel.

SO YOU'RE SURE ABOUT THIS SENSE OF TOUCH THING?

Susan nodded and started counting the bones to make sure they were all there.

YOU FEEL WARM

"And you feel smooth. Chicken bones are rough. So you're smooth because you've been a skeleton for a long time just like river rocks."

I NEVER THOUGHT OF IT THAT WAY.

Susan held Death's arm and wiggled it back and forth so she could watch his hand flap around.

WHAT ARE YOU DOING?

"Just checking."

She crawled out of his lap so she could see his whole arm.

"Are your bones like mine?"

YOURS ARE A LITTLE DIFFERENT BECAUSE YOU'RE A GIRL.

"That's stupid."

IT'S REALLY NOT THAT MUCH OF A CHANGE.

"How come your arm stops?"

WHAT DO YOU MEAN?

Susan bent her arm then straightened it out.

"Like that. It stops on your elbow."

THAT'S BECAUSE THE SHAPE OF THE JOINT ONLY ALLOWS FOR A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF MOVEMENT

"Why?"

I SUPPOSE IT'S SO YOUR MUSCLES DON'T HAVE TO STRETCH SO MUCH.

"Beatrice can do it. She's a show off."

I CAN TOO. WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE WHAT YOUR FRIEND IS DOING TO HER BONES?

Susan grinned. Death popped the joint out of its socket and pulled it backwards.

"Ewwww," Susan said with a mixture of disgust, glee, and morbid fascination. "You don't have a tummy," she said without segue.

I NEVER HAD USE FOR ONE.

"You lost some bones. There should be bones there."

HUMANS DON'T HAVE BONES IN THEIR STOMACH.

"That's stupid."

HUMANS ARE STRANGE CREATURES TO BE SURE.

Susan put her hand through the place where Death's organs would be if he weren't a skeleton. Death squirmed.

WHAT ARE YOU—STOP THAT!

"But there's nothing there. I'm not touching you."

REALLY?

"Yeah, see, it's all empty."

Susan flew her hands through the space like a bird. Death chuckled.

THAT TICKLES.

Susan reached her hand up through his ribcage. He squeaked like the Death of Rats.

THAT HURT.

"Huh, what did? You said it tickled."

IT WAS AROUND HERE.

"That's weird. You must be sick then. Don't worry, I'll fix it."

Susan waved her hand inside Death's ribs until he squeaked again.

"Ah, I see," she said sagely, "you're having a heart attack."

I AM?

"I saw it once. Mr. Oreily got a heart attack because his chest hurt. I must have attacked your heart too."

BUT I DON'T HAVE A HEART.

"You have to or I couldn't attack it. Do you think I pushed it out of place or something?"

BUT IT ISN'T THERE.

"Of course it's not there. I pushed it away. Now don't move. It's hard to fix things that don't exist properly."

I'M NOT SURE WHAT TO SAY TO THAT.

"Don't worry. I'm really good at this. I scared a bogeyman once."

ARE YOU SURE I'M ALLOWED TO FEEL THIS?

"You have to or else I can't find what I did wrong. Now tell me when it hurts."

THERE… AND A BIT RIGHT THERE.

"Here?"

NO, A LITTLE FURTHER UP. OUCH!

"Ah ha! I can feel it."

NOW YOU'RE THE ONE MAKING THINGS UP.

"No, it's true! Look I know where it is. It will hurt here…"

SQUEAK

"And here…"

SQUEAK

"And here too."

SQUEAK.

"See I told you I could feel it."

REMARKABLE. SO I DO HAVE A HEART?

"No."

BUT YOU JUST SAID-

"You don't have it because it's somewhere else. You made me think it was my fault. That's mean Granddad!"

I'M SORRY. I DIDN'T EVEN KNOW IT WASN'T THERE. CAN YOU FIX IT?

"No, I'm afraid not," said Susan in a solemn voice. She patted Death's scapula. "These things are terminal."

… RIGHT… UM, CAN I PUT MY ROBES BACK ON?

"Sure." Susan screeched and spun around. "No, no, no! You take the trousers off after you put on the robe!"

WHY ARE THERE SO MANY RULES JUST FOR PUTTING ON CLOTHES?

"You have to do it right or you'll be indecent!"

OH, I SEE

Death's black robes reappeared like mist. Satisfied with her grandfather's level of decency, Susan tugged on his bony hand.

"Can I sit on you shoulder's, Grandfather?"

AREN'T YOU A BIT OLD FOR THAT?

"But you're old too, so it evens out."

I SUPPOSE

Death picked up Susan and placed her on his shoulders as if she weighed nothing.

"I can see the fields from here."

WE SHALL GO THERE THEN

"You made this place, right?"

YES

"How come everything's black?"

I LIKE BLACK

"But then why did you make the fields gold?"

I… WANTED TO REMEMBER

"Remember what?"

I SPENT SOME TIME ON A FARM ONCE. I LIKED IT THERE. I THOUGHT I WOULD BRING BACK A SOUVENIR

"But you made them gold and not black."

YES, YOU SEE, IT'S NOT EASY FOR ME TO MAKE SOMETHING THAT ISN'T BLACK. I'M NOT VERY CREATIVE EITHER. HUMANS ARE MUCH BETTER AT SUCH THINGS. WHEN I LIVED ON THAT FARM, I HAD A LIFETIMER

"You still do. It's the big one on your desk. It's like a huge hourglass."

YES BUT THAT LIFETIMER IS EMPTY. WHEN I WORKED ON THE FARM I HAD A NORMAL ONE WITH SAND IN IT. MY LIFE FLOWED FROM THE TOP TO THE BOTTOM, TICKING AWAY THE SECONDS. I'VE EXISTED FOR EONS BUT I WAS NEVER ALIVE. ON THAT FARM I FINALLY HAD TIME TO SPEND. WHEN I CAME HOME AND RETURNED TO MY DUTIES I HAD A SMALL AMOUNT OF SAND LEFT IN THE TIMER. I SPENT IT MAKING THAT FIELD

"I have sand in my lifetimer. Can I make a field too?"

NO. He rarely ever used his powers against his family, but this was a clear exception. In these circumstances the ancient Voice of Death was essential. I FORBID THAT

"Why?"

EVERY SECOND OF YOUR LIFE IS PRECIOUS. YOUR TIME IS TOO HIGH A PRICE TO PAY FOR A FIELD. BELIEVE ME. I'M DEATH. I KNOW WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT

"But you did it."

I USED MY TIME THAT WAY BECAUSE THERE WAS NOTHING ELSE I COULD DO WITH IT. I COULD NOT SHARE IT OR SPEND IT. I WOULD HAVE LOVED TO LIVE IT OR GIVE IT TO ALBERT, BUT I COULDN'T. I AM DEATH. I CANNOT GIVE LIFE

"So you made something pretty with it."

YES. I THINK I MADE A GOOD DECISION

"Do you have any left?"

TIME?

"Yeah, I want to try making something here too! Maybe a castle!"

I'M SORRY. I DIDN'T HAVE MUCH TO BEGIN WITH

"Oh… can you get some more?"

NO

The Voice of Death crushed down on Susan but she was undaunted.

"Why?"

TAKING LIFE FROM ANOTHER PERSON IS CALLED MURDER. I DO NOT KILL PEOPLE.

"Oh… but what if they wanted you to have it?"

I DON'T LIKE THIS CONVERSATION, SUSAN.

"But people commit suicide! Where does that extra life go?"

I DO NOT WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT

Susan stayed silent until they reached the edge of the golden fields. Death set her down and she ran her hand along the stalks.

"Grandfather, could you do something for me?"

Death looked down at her and nodded.

"I wish there was some other way," she said. "I wish I could make something for your house. I don't care if it's only black."

Death didn't answer.

"It's just that you've given me a lot of things and I want to give you something too." Susan took her grandfather's hand and looked up at him. "I want you to remember me."

Death knelt in front of her and held her other hand.

I WILL DO THAT THEN. EVEN IF IT TAKES YOUR WHOLE LIFE, I WILL FIND A WAY TO GRANT YOUR WISH. I WILL FIND ANOTHER WAY

Susan beamed and flung her arms around Death's bony shoulders.

"I love you, grandpa."