O Lord, give each person his own personal death. A thing that moves out of the same life he lived, In which he had love, and intelligence, and trouble.
Rainer Maria Rilke
The spirits of the dead continue to exist in the unseen world which is everywhere about us; and they all become gods of varying character and degrees of influence.
My first name, Angelene. The prettiest mess you’ve ever seen.
PJ Harvey, Angelene
There are no secrets to the dead, as after this life they still exist, and known to them is the exit from this stage of fools; alas, everyone will join in this secret eventually, in his own personal way; but a great death takes a life of preparation. That is why it is said that in the final moment you get the chance to review your entire life, to watch it unfold before your eyes as you’re turning your soul in.
But while everyone can picture a last moment of intimacy with his or her demise, very few stop and think of the end during all the other moments of their life. If Death itself was a person, we would have noticed his or her presence long before the last check out. Bumped into him on the subway. Exchanged a seat on a plane. Or glanced over at his watch to check what time it is because you’re running late.
We purposely relegate this thought to the very end — an end that’s simply pushed to the back of our mind and only rarely comes back, usually in the heart of the night, haunting our sleep. That’s why, even if Death were an actual person, we’d never recognize him.
The personification of our Death.
Even if he turned out to be your pale, skinny neighbor upstairs.
Every good story has its beginning in the middle of the action, so I’ll spare you the boring details of my anonymous life until that dreadful night. I’ll give you the basics: I’m twenty-eight, an only child, parents long dead. I’m smart enough to finish college cum laude, but not smart enough to pick something actually useful. Poetry. What was I thinking again? But that’s a different topic. Of course, as no good story ever started with Once upon I time I was drinking a cranberry juice, I’ll start with me and Neil — my best friend Neil, who knew the secrets of my buttery heart that trembled and fell in love too easily; Neil, whose heart was lighter than mine — Neil and I, as this story starts, in a pub at sundown in the City. Nameless voices filling the air and the smell of alcohol and sweat and people trying to find shelter from themselves. That night saw us celebrating my third month unemployed. But the important part of the conversation, the part that set everything in motion, came unnoticed when we ended up talking about my new neighbor, the guy in the attic. We didn’t know his name, and we didn’t care – having surrendered our lucidity to the spirits already, we were wildly speculating about pale Skinny Guy, so Neil said,
He’s a vampire, I tell you.
No, Neil, he’s not. Vampires don’t exist.
Have you ever seen him in broad daylight?
I couldn’t say that I have.
Does he freak out in front of a cross? Garlic?
Never shared a meal; never been in his house, my friend. How would I know?
The conversation weighed the possible pros and cons of having a vampire living in the attic above my old apartment and involved a good number of tequila shots with beer backs. As we’ll discover, the effects of tequila on human beings are heavily underrated. But let’s stick with the order of events. Neil kept insisting on his vampire theory and said,
So, let me recap: He always dresses in black. He’s pale as the moon and so tall and thin it’s a friggin’ miracle he can even stand up straight. If he’s not a vampire, then he’s definitely something. Possibly a Satanist. Does he wear t-shirts with goats on them?
I wouldn’t know, Neil. I saw him once—twice. Never even said hello to him.
And he moved in what, three weeks ago?
More or less. More tequila?
We drank to a point where we couldn’t keep the conversation going logically anymore. We paid, left the tip, and then decided to call it a night. My house was close by so we walked in that direction. Neil took a rounded piece of metal out of his pocket, with a little chain attached to an end. An old watch. He started spinning it around until the chain would grip around his hand, only to proceed to spin it in the other direction to release the chain – in, then out, then in again, then out – a manual and imprecise pendulum.
You still have that old thing? I asked.
It’s my grandfather’s, you know. Besides, it’s just for looks, he said, spinning the time away from his hand.
In the night-cold air we let the drinks take over and instead of saying Goodbye, Good night, Neil suddenly jumped ahead and started running up the old stairs of the house, skipping my floor and heading for the attic.
Neil! Where the hell are you going? Neil! You’ll get us in trouble! I said, hoping that my whispers weren’t actually shouts, mislead by the alcohol in my blood.
If he sleeps in a coffin, we oughta kill him! Said Neil, and continued, I just wanna check out his place. Lights are out. He’s probably out.
It’s one thing to discuss the weird guy in the attic that you don’t know and make fun of, but it’s entirely another to break into his house. Right? Try reasoning when drunk and tell me how it worked out for you. So instead of trying to force him down and Go home and See you tomorrow, what did I do? I followed him up to the attic, to the door of Skinny Guy. The doors that are doomed to open are always unlocked, and this was one of them. We were in.
As soon as we closed the door behind us it was dark, and I immediately sensed a stench. Mold and dust and rot. I imagined nests of rats and evil things crawling in the dark – not a good thought to have. I was holding Neil by the shirt like a child. We stood there, frozen, until our eyes were able to see. Dark wooden floor, old unpainted plaster walls, a rusty stove, and nothing more, other than a feeling of restlessness. I wanted to say Let’s get out of here, but I didn’t have time as Neil walked towards the window. Before I could get to him I heard him scream. It was a short-lived scream that died in his throat as he fell. I jumped to help him, shouting Neil! and when I moved closer – there it was.
Blocking the window was a dark silhouette, black melting with the surrounding black, a mantle and a hood, darkness taking shape, and as the streetlight shone on a long blade I fell down and hurt my face, on the ground, helpless. I tried to move towards the wall to find something to grip onto and pull myself up, but before turning to check on Neil again I heard voices that said,
Does he actually see you?
I do not know. It seems so. The other one?
He is grasping at the wall.
One of the voices was difficult to identify—it could have been the voice of a little girl or an old man or a young woman or a toddler muttering mamamama for the first time. The second voice was clearly one of a heavy smoker – words shaving his throat out and trembling. I finally managed to pull myself up and leant against the wall to keep myself straight.
I finally took a clear look.
The smoker was a six-foot-tall giant black bird. Black like oil, black against the hooded tall figure on his right. The blade the tall guy had in his skeletal hands was to my knowledge a scythe. My heart paused for a second, only to catch the energy needed to start racing faster and faster, and so I had to hold onto the wall, while with my foot I reached out to Neil to poke him and wake him up. The two figures started to talk again,
They see us, mate – rasping voice of hell talking – that is rather strange to me, and I don’t even think entirely possible. If not out of place completely.
I know. The other one saw me already, I would dare say.
The tall figure removed his hood, revealing the face of my neighbor – Skinny Guy. At this particular point, I wasn’t sure if I could cross off vampire from the list, but seeing his face was enough to help my heart slow down. As logic seeped in, I thought that maybe he was one of those guys that dress up as knights and myths and demigods – for deep is the human longing to mimic the immortals.
A man in his right mind would simply collect his passed-out friend, ask for forgiveness, and go on with his life. But I wasn’t in my right mind. See, alcohol is not a friend, it’s not the solution to your problem, it’s not a balsam that when passed on your mind cleanses it from pain. It is a drug and a demon and limbo and dark oblivion. But I didn’t know that then, and as I was possessed by this demon – which has a sense of humour of its own – instead of going about my own business I shouted,
So the giant bird turned towards me and said something like Oh, very very smart; nice. I’ll make you meet the dead fella in a heartbeat!
He spread his arms, or wings. The costume was really good; all looked real, dark wings five feet out from each side. I was starting to feel my heart pounding again when Skinny Guy stopped him and said,
Leave him alone.
Leave him. He saw me anyway, and he is still here.
What about his dead buddy here then? I can’t just leave him here?
Things have a way of figuring themselves out.
Great night out, my friend. Remind me not to hang with you anymore.
Still holding tight to whatever was on the wall behind me, I muttered something like,
Sorry, guys. Look, my friend isn’t dead; he’s just passed out. He does this when we drink too much—I kept poking Neil with my foot—so if you’ll excuse us for our disturbance, we actually just hit the wrong floor. Our night’s over, but you can go on to whatever party you were going to. Great costumes, by the way.
The crow hopped towards me and I pressed myself closer to the wall as he was really pretty scary. He turned my friend’s body over with his long, black beak.
Dead, he said.
Blood was coming out of Neil’s nostrils and his face was distorted and his eyes were wide open. Unnaturally open, unblinking. Whatever was holding me up wasn’t enough anymore and I fell to my knees with my hands over my mouth and my heart racing the final mile up to my throat. The voices of the bird and Skinny Guy became murmurs too heavy to be whispers, but needles stinging in my ears together with a buzzing sound. And I wasn’t listening anymore, but rather throwing my eyes at Neil’s body – at the window – at the two guys – at his body again – and the blood and the buzzing became unbearable and then I believe I saw Neil standing outside of his body and looking at his body; and there were two of him and then the ringing sound became a flash of light in my eyes and my body gave up and I saw darkness there, and nothing more.
(copyright 2017 Dario Cannizzaro. All rights reserved. Any reproduction without the consent of the author is strictly forbidden)