This line of work is not an easy one. I have been doing this job for a very long time, and normally I would argue it gets easier the more you do it, emotional toll aside. When you’re a being that has been around for millions of years you do not have the luxury of letting emotion get in the way. My dozens of apprentices would claim otherwise, but you’ll have to forgive them because they are still young. What, did you think I was the only one in charge of taking humans’ lives? Please. My siblings and I may be all-powerful primordial entities assigned as weavers of this planet’s fate roughly since its formation but even we can’t be omnipresent. The management upstairs decided I would oversee the humans’ affairs, whereas my brother and sister supervise the plant and animal kingdom respectively. My sister is the eldest, followed by my brother and then me. In fact I didn’t exist from the very beginning. I was blissfully slumbering in my comfortable void pocket until I was called into work one day, just like that. No respect for sleeping time, am I right? So imagine my surprise when I suddenly discovered I was now able to possess a corporeal form! Let me tell you, it’s quite a shock at first. The brass says it’s so that we “grow closer to our charges’ plight”, whatever that means. Apparently you cannot empathize with a dying creature unless you experience several lifetimes through its eyes. We all had to carry out this particular “exercise” so to speak back when we were rookies. You gain a newfound respect for living things after doing that for centuries. I still haven’t forgotten what it felt like the first time I had to guide a human soul to the afterlife. His eyes were so full of terror, of questions that regrettably I was in no position to answer. You see, they don’t tell me everything either.
I thought I would be strong enough to handle the task but as it turns out it starts to weigh on you. The earliest hairline cracks in my conviction appeared in the Greco-Persian Wars. I had seldom witnessed bloodbaths on such an immense scale before, and I was spreading myself increasingly thin arranging thousands of deaths at a time, collecting all those lost souls that would often wander aimlessly for days if I failed to cater to them the moment they had died. I was descending into the unforgiving depths of desperation when a note from above materialized in my spread palms: “You don’t have to do everything alone.” Yes, I catch my bosses in a generous mood occasionally. Hope renewed, I gave up a part of myself to bring my first apprentice into existence. To this day she remains my most faithful student and closest confidant. You may wonder why I don’t quit, reassured that my underlings would fulfill the rest of my mission. As tempting as that is, I’d have to decline the offer. I was not created to be a distant punisher, someone who’d hang up their hat no matter how many cultures might fear and loathe me. If it were up to me I wouldn’t wish such a gruesome end on anyone. My siblings and I have to remember that orders are orders—it was drilled into us from day one. The least I can do is be compassionate. But I digress. Where were we again?
Usually I am handed various instruments of death; knives, guns, crashed vehicles being the most frequent of them. My old scythe is so 12th century—I don’t sport that thing nowadays. Sometimes it won’t necessarily be an object that marks someone’s demise but medical reasons. I am there by their bedside holding their hand till they draw their last breath, even if they can’t always see me. I have to be unrelenting yet sympathetic. I have tried to instill these qualities in all of my pupils. This is the way it must be after all.
I don’t always reveal myself to mortals. Despite my reluctance to involve myself in their fleeting existence, I recognize that every single life is precious and unique, and so every now and then I may make exceptions for certain intriguing individuals. I disguise myself as their neighbor, their acquaintance, the stranger they greet in the supermarket every week, but never anything closer than that. I orbit their lives distantly like one of Saturn’s moons. Do you recall what I said in the beginning? I’ll presume you do, otherwise your memory skills may need a little work. Anyway, the idea is that I can’t permit myself to get too close. All life must end eventually, mine also. Becoming too intimate with someone would just cloud my focus. Besides, what would I even tell them? “I’m going to reap your soul in precisely 47 years 21 days and 12.5 hours, by the way this tea is lovely!” Yeah, that would go well.
Today the usual name list has come in my email (one must keep up with the times, don’t judge). One name in particular catches my attention; Madeline Barry, age 67. Retired marine biologist. I drag my eyes to the right of the screen. The COD simply reads ‘humpback whale’. My initial instinct is to think my superiors are trolling me. Is it possible they have gone senile somehow, considering they are infinitely older than the three of us Death entities combined? The routine has always gone a bit like this: I would receive the name(s) of the imminently deceased, their age, the date of death as well as the reason they would die. No details on how their death was to be orchestrated have ever been included. “You’ll know what to do”, is all they’d tell me. So far they have never been wrong, then why is this edict so strange?
Furrowing my brows in confusion, I grab my black pea coat from its hook (black never goes out of fashion, despite how much my elder brother may disagree on that), shrugging it on as I teleported to the location I instinctively knew I would find the whale in question. By the way, did I mention I can teleport to anywhere on Earth? Never let it be said that this job doesn’t come with perks. Biting winds greet my arrival but the cold does not affect me. Nothing Earthly does, really. I proceed to sit down crossed-legged on a small hilltop on the Alaskan coast, weighing my options. I can’t completely write off the possibility that this could have been a mistake… UNLESS… they want me to reenact the Monstro scene from Pinocchio. No, I wasn’t going to do that, dammit! Perhaps this was meant to go to my sister’s email instead?
“Hey you. Whatcha doing all the way out here? Shouldn’t you be watching over leukemia patients or something?”
Deep in contemplation as I was, I didn’t notice my elder sister materializing beside me.
“I know I’ve said I’ll never quit, but I’m seriously tempted to right now.”
“Sounds serious. Spill.” Her boots crunch in the snow as she sits down next to me. We all assume human form for convenience these days.
“You must have presided over countless whales’ deaths over your lifetime. What kind of creature are they?”
“Whales are majestic, freedom-loving animals that can exhibit playful mannerisms but are also fiercely protective of their own. They share strong familial bonds with each other, while their songs are beautiful and melancholic. Their migration patterns are an amazing spectacle to behold. They don’t possess a sentient soul like humans do, only a mass of light that dissolves in the ether. All animals’ souls wind up this way.”
“I’ve been asked to plan someone’s death by whale in less than a few days.” I deadpan, chewing on a nail. Bad anxiety habit from WW2.
“What!” she exclaims teasingly. “Are you sure you read that right?”
“I hate my life,” I rub my hands over my face and hair, mussing it up irreparably. The humpback whale I’m supposed to incorporate in my plan is splashing its tail in the water merrily off in the distance.
She teases my hair even further, making it look like a bird’s nest if I had to estimate its current state. Her sisterly grin makes me feel a tiny bit better about this. “You know I’m not supposed to intrude on your territory, or you on mine. We’ve talked about this.”
A frosty sigh escapes my parted lips. “I know, I know. Rules are rules.” I wrap my hands together, turning to face her with a lopsided smile. “Guess I’ll drop the whale on her as she walks down the street then.”
Her resounding laugh echoes all around us, lifting my spirits in the process. I had almost forgotten how dazzling my sister is at the core, the twinkle in her eyes unveiling a fieriness and magnificence borne of billions of years of having been alive.
“I have faith in you. You’ve managed to solve far harder problems in the past, don’t let one humpback whale stop you.” She gets up to stretch. “Whoo boy, this place sure is freezing. I must say I much prefer Serengeti in that regard”. She winks meaningfully at me, “Maybe you are approaching this from the wrong angle. Talking to that lady could provide you with the answer you seek.” And then she’s gone in the blink of an eye.
I know what she’s suggesting--that I reveal myself to Madeline, get engaged in her life in her final days. I haven’t done that in a while, plus it never ends well (they literally all die in the end), but a part of me whispers my sister might be right this time, as is her wont.