SEEING IS BECOMING
by Regina Jade
Content Warnings: none
‘What should we do with the body?’
Dana gave me a look – the kind of look that makes you want to grab a notepad and pen to look busy. ‘You mean,’ she said pointedly, ‘what should you do with the body. You saw it die.’
‘Hey, I helped you clean up your lab station last week! The least you can do is help me figure out how we can dispose of this.’
‘Amber. This is the first star dragon anyone has ever encountered. And you saw it die.’
I turned back to the enormous corpse of the star dragon. I had indeed watched it breathe its last: the light dimming in its brilliant gold eyes, the sparks flying out of its mouth lessening, the slowing of its ribcage. I hadn’t thought much of it, besides the desire to take frantic notes before we lost the ability to further study the star dragon. It had been completely by chance that it had been found anyways, and we scientists knew better than to look a gift like that in the eye.
On the other hand, because the whole dying business had happened on Dana’s lunch break, that meant I had been completely alone. I was, therefore, the first human who had seen a star dragon die. That kind of landmark didn’t come without consequences.
I looked down. My pristine white lab coat was already starting to turn black, tendrils growing from where my left hand rested against my leg. In time, I knew, the black colour would overtake my entire outfit and from there any article of clothing I ever put on. The clipboard in my right hand was also changing colour, but it was turning a shiny metallic grey, gleaming under the bright lights of the lab. The robes and scythe of a Death.
I closed my eyes. The old mantra that every child learned came to me without effort. To see the death of the first creature is to become their Death: to wear the black robes, to wield the grey scythe, to be a guide to the afterlife for all eternity.
A beep sounded to my right. I turned and scowled.
‘Are you filming me?’
Dana shrugged innocently from where she was pointing a camera at me. ‘Hey, it’s not every day that you get to witness the birth of a Death.’
‘I wish I had become the Death of Cameras,’ I muttered. Then I stomped off to find my supervisor because, well, someone had to report that the star dragon had died and that I had become a Death. It might as well be me.
I left my supervisor’s office with a termination letter, a hefty goodbye bonus, and a pamphlet. The first two I had expected – Deaths couldn’t exactly hold normal nine-to-five jobs – but the pamphlet I had not. It was a garish thing with jaunty, lime green font proclaiming its title as Welcome to Death, and my supervisor had explained that it contained information on how to register and basic information on what to expect.
I scribbled down the address for the nearest Registration Hall from the inside cover and then chucked it straight in the garbage can before it could fry my eyeballs.
A few people waved or nodded at me as I walked out of the doors, but even more paled or quickly averted their eyes. It wasn’t surprising; Deaths always made people nervous, and I had never been the most social of butterflies. I wondered how quickly someone would claim my workstation. I wondered who would take over for my shifts. I wondered how soon the story would spread: Amber, yeah, she used to work here, but now she’s a Death.
Those melancholy thoughts got me all the way from my former office to the Registration Hall. I had never been to it, mostly because it was for aliens or other sentient non-humans to visit when they landed on Earth for the first time, but the pamphlet said Deaths had to register there too.
The Hall was deserted when I entered.
‘Hello?’ I called, tentatively stepping further inside. ‘Hello, is anyone there?’
My voice echoed off the gigantic, vaulted ceiling and cavernous side hallways. The entire Registration Hall was made of marble and steel, like some kind of government building, but it had no photographs or helpful guides. There was just a single wooden desk and a handful of chairs clustered in the front.
I went to the desk and rang the bell. No one answered.
After about five minutes, I pulled out my phone. To my relief, it still responded to my thumbprint and didn’t explode at my touch. Sometimes, turning from a human into something else meant that technology didn’t really cooperate with you anymore, but my phone dutifully sent out my query on Deaths and returned with results.
A lot of results, actually.
I whistled lowly. ‘I’m gonna have fun wading through all of this nonsense,’ I muttered.
‘Your pamphlet should have everything you need to know to get started,’ a cheery voice said suddenly from over my shoulder.
I yelped and whirled around. A woman was now standing at the desk. She was dressed in a very sharp business suit, her hair pulled back in a tight bun and her nails painted a demure nude. She could have easily passed for one of my old schoolteachers – if she hadn’t, you know, flickered as she smiled.
I cleared my throat and tucked my phone back in my pocket. ‘You’re… a ghost?’
‘And you’re a Death,’ she replied. ‘I assume you’re here to register? Do you know what you’re the Death of?’
I paused midway through accepting a stack of papers. ‘You mean some people don’t know?’ I couldn’t imagine waking up one day to find all of my clothes black and the nearest object I had touched grey while I tried desperately to wrack my brains for whatever I had witnessed die.
She shrugged. ‘The universe is filled with so many creatures. It happens. Ah, a star dragon. Magnificent creatures. I didn’t know we had succeeded in the research expedition to find them.’
‘Ah, no,’ I said awkwardly. ‘A passing ship picked up an injured one. We were trying to see if we could treat it when. Well.’
‘I see,’ she said. ‘In any case, your guide should be arriving shortly.’
‘Well, most Deaths do throw out the pamphlet, as I suspect you did. So usually, we have at least one on-call so they can answer questions when you register. I think it’s Steve on call right now. He’s quite nice, you’ll like him.’
I passed her back the stack of papers. ‘What’s he the Death of?’
‘Squirrels, I believe.’
Steve showed up about ten minutes later. He was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, although the deep black of Death robes made them striking rather than casual. He was also, weirdly, carrying a hand mixer.
When we looked eyes, a shiver raced down my spine. For a second, I saw more than just Steve in his shorts – I saw a smiling skull and a flaming hand and an endless, star-filled void where eyes should be – but then I blinked, and he was back to normal. Well, as normal as Deaths could get.
‘Hi,’ he said cheerily, trotting up to me. ‘I assume you’re the new Death?’
‘That’s me. But you already knew that, right?’
His face turned serious. ‘Deaths always know each other. It might take a while for all of your new abilities to come online, but true sight – that always comes first. Don’t be alarmed if you start noticing some strange stuff.’
‘Like a ghost manning the Registration Hall?’ I said dryly.
‘Like a ghost manning the Registration Hall,’ he agreed with a wide grin. ‘Now then! I heard you were the Death of star dragons. I see you’re already rocking the black robes. Where’s your scythe?’
I held up my clipboard. It had fully mutated into its shiny grey glory; even a normal human would know at a glance that it was special.
‘Cool. Don’t lose it.’
‘I thought scythes always appeared when a Death needs them?’
‘Oh, good. So you did read part of the pamphlet.’
‘Yeah, well, I don’t know how to use it.’
‘Aaand that’s where you stopped,’ Steve said wryly. ‘I can work with that. Are you ready to reap your first soul?’
‘Something tells me that no matter what I say, you’re going to make me do it anyways.’
Steve winked. ‘See, you’re already learning. We’ll get along just fine. Come on, show me where your star dragon died.’
We set off back out the doors, with the ghost of Registration Hall waving a cheery goodbye to us. Steve seemed absolutely okay with how people parted to make way for us; I just followed along in his wake. Thank God for tall, confident people.
As we drew closer to the parking lot, I mustered up the nerve to finally ask. ‘Um, is there a reason why you’re carrying a hand mixer?’
Steve looked mournfully at it. ‘It’s my scythe.’
I winced. I had expected that, since his hand mixer was the same gleaming grey as my clipboard, but it was still weird. ‘Mind if I ask how you ended up with that as your scythe? I mean, I thought you were the Death of squirrels. Surely the first time a human saw a squirrel die was—’
‘Millennia ago,’ Steve interrupted wearily. He sighed. ‘Let’s just say: don’t volunteer to be a test subject for time travel.’
I blinked. I had heard of the time-travel trials, but I thought they were a joke. Then I realised: ‘You were baking during an experiment?’
‘Delayed trigger. I sat around all day with a million monitors on me and nothing, so I went home, intending to bake myself a nice treat. Ended up way further back in time than anyone meant. Plus, I spilt all the batter.’
I burst out laughing before I could stop myself.
Steve scowled and said, ‘Yeah, yeah, laugh it up.’ He even menaced me with his mixer, buzzing it on and off as he waved it in the air.
I just laughed harder.
‘So,’ I said, staring at the enormous star dragon. ‘What now?’
‘What do your instincts tell you to do?’
I looked over to where Steve was leaning against the nearest table, hands shoved in his pockets and a piece of candy in his mouth. He was the very picture of a casual frat boy who had wandered into the lab.
‘To throw a lab coat and proper shoes at you,’ I answered. ‘You’re a walking lab safety nightmare.’
Steve rolled his eyes. ‘I’m a Death. I won’t die until the last squirrel does. And you know that’s not what I mean.’ He gestured at my clipboard. ‘Close your eyes. Breathe. Listen to your heartbeat.’
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. For a moment, I heard nothing but Steve’s munching and the gentle beeps of the monitoring equipment. I gripped my clipboard tighter, until my hands hurt, and thought back to when I had met eyes with Steve – when for a second, I had glimpsed something more, something deeper, something woven into the very fabric of the universe—
And it came to me.
As if in a trance, I took one step, and then another, and then another, until I was right next to the star dragon. I slowly extended my clipboard in one hand and placed my free hand on its hide. A name came to me, like snowflakes landing softly on my skin.
I murmured the dragon’s name. ‘Be at peace,’ I added, because it felt right.
The dragon shuddered and stretched. A formless silver smoke poured out of the star dragon’s mouth and eyes, gathering into the air above like a cloud. The cloud grew legs and wings and a head. It sparkled and flashed like dragon fire. Finally, it coalesced into the familiar shimmering silver of a soul, and the star dragon looked down at me.
‘Hello,’ the dragon said.
‘Hello. I am your Death,’ I replied, following the nudging of some instinct hopping along in my chest.
‘Did I die a good death?’
I closed my eyes again. A story was unfolding in my brain, like a book being uploaded. I knew the dragon’s name, her hopes and dreams, her fears and regrets, her beloved family and her hated enemies. I knew everything.
‘Yes,’ I told her. ‘Your daughter lives because of you. You saved her. It was a good death.’
The dragon sighed a long breath tinged with sparks. ‘That is good. Will you guide me home, Death of star dragons?’
‘Yes. What would you like done with your body?’
‘Burn it,’ the dragon said. ‘All dragons should return to the fire we came from.’
I looked at the dragon’s body and knew instinctively that no regular fire would do. She was a star dragon who could burn planets and swim in lava without fear; she deserved a pyre worthy of the deeds she had done in life.
‘There is a star called WR 102 that burns the hottest in our galaxy,’ I told the dragon. ‘I can send your body on a ship there so that the star may consume your body whole.’
‘That will be a good fire. Thank you.’
The dragon swished her tail and flapped her wings, so that her soul sailed smoothly downwards. I lifted my hand upwards and thought of the endless void, of stars and flames, of the first breath and the last gasp. We touched, my flesh to her soul, and she vanished as abruptly as she had arrived.
I looked at my clipboard. Her name was branded there now, etched into the very fabric of my scythe.
I traced it with a finger. ‘Goodbye,’ I told her.
‘Well done,’ Steve told me. He was back to his solemn, serious self now, the candy gone, and the hand mixer held in his hands like a proper scythe. ‘You saw the death of the first star dragon, and you have now reaped their soul. It is your duty and honour to be their guide to the afterlife for all eternity.’
Then he winked. ‘Black robes optional, though.’
Regina Jade is an Asian American writer and poet. She loves chocolate, custard tarts, and cats. In her spare time, she can be found trawling the depths of libraries for new books to add to the to-be-read pile, which never seems to get any smaller. Her recent work appears in Moist Poetry Journal, Ink Drinkers Magazine, 3cents Magazine, and is also featured in an anthology titled “Imaginary Creatures” from Carnation Books.