ALL THESE LITTLE DEATHS
By Bibi Osha
Content Warnings: Mentions of death, suicide and violence.
The day my nose bleeds, Mama cries while Obah urges me to snort it back up as she cups her hands underneath my jaw to keep my blood off the floor. I do as told, though I wince at the taste of copper coating my tongue and how thick mucus slides down the back of my throat. They say it’s important that I listen before Obah warns me to keep my mouth shut.
‘If anyone asks,’ she says, her voice barely a whisper, ‘you tell them you have your ancestor on your tongue. And if a man comes to you, you run.’
I nod as Mama continues weeping.
Everything changes after this. Obah tosses salt at my back whenever I step outside the house, and when I return, she sweeps across the threshold like a possessed woman. Back and forth, forth and back. Mama works just as hard, stitching a strange symbol in the hem of all my skirts. She paints every bead she places in my hair and spends more coin than usual to buy the freshest cuts of meat at the air markets. Nothing is ever explained to me, nor do I ask. A conjure woman doesn’t do anything without reason, but so too is she supposed to know and see everything. Neither Mama nor Obah sees the flakes of dark crimson crusted beneath my nails.
To this day, I wonder, if they had seen all the times I spat coppery phlegm onto the red dirt, would they still have let me out the house with a handful of salt stinging my back and neck? I wonder if crying Mama knew that, on that day, I’d leave the house for the last and final time.
He isn’t at all how I imagined him. Death, I mean. Growing up, you hear all sorts of things about what he’s supposed to look like. I’ve heard some even argue about his gender, about whether he truly is a he or it’s just a mirage. I still don’t know the answer, but what I can tell you is that Death is simply whatever Death wishes to be.
When I first lay my eyes on him, it’s just after I’ve broken through the river’s surface, having taken a break from the laundry. I find him crouched at the bank near where my clothes lie, watching me. He’s a dark-skinned man, unbearably handsome, with strange eyes and black curls that reach down to his chest in thick ringlets.
If it wasn’t for Obah’s warning, I might have stared at him a while longer. Instead, I shout, demanding he leaves as hot crimson drips from my nose. He doesn’t. I scream. He screams back, but his voice is unnatural, like he’s got hundreds of people locked inside of him.
Death grins like a wolf when I stop my yelling, beaming like a little boy who knows he’s about to receive a treat. I know when he steps into the river, drenching the yellow suit that marks him as a foreigner, I should run. But I don’t. I let him get close enough to embrace me, and despite myself, I fall into his strangely familiar hold and inhale, smelling iron.
Obah and Mama find my body the next morning, tangled up in the rocks, my clothes and basket untouched. Or at least this is what Death tells me sometime later.
It takes me two more lives to realize I’ve met him twice already. By then, I think I’ve learned how to pick him out of a crowd. He, of course, proves me wrong because he’s not the model staring me down as I drag graphite over my paper in a sticky, hot studio as the professor circles around our easels with his vulture eyes.
The professor would have been my second guess, though I still would have been wrong.
This time, Death’s unassuming, nearly a head shorter than me with a hooked nose and heterochromia. His sandy skin is unblemished except for a curious white ring around his left wrist. Four months go by before he reveals himself to me. He does this while pushing needles into my skin because he swears by acupuncture, and he’s the only person in my major willing to speak to the black girl with a shaved head and coke-bottle glasses.
‘Do you always do this?’ I’m brave enough to ask as he teaches me not to burn couscous.
Death doesn’t answer, just gets moody over his glass of sparkling grape cider and insists on piercing my ears.
I’m not sure how this one ends, but I suspect it’s during a late-night session when one of his shiny little needles punches a hole into my lung while he butchers the lyrics to one of my favourite songs.
Things go a bit different the next time I see him. In the busy streets of Cairo, I take him by surprise, pickpocketing the coin purse from between his fancy embroidered robes before I lead him through the markets and twisting alleyways.
If you must know, knives don’t work on Death. He laughs against my lips, his blood hot on both our hands where he holds my wrist tight, keeping the blade between his ribs. Only once I’m thoroughly breathless with swollen lips does he tell me to run.
This particular game goes on for four years, our little tit-for-tat. He ends it abruptly, however, when a rug seller asks for my hand.
My next life is uneventful, though I live it with an unnatural aversion to carpets.
Not everything is cat-and-mouse or violence, though. Death is civil to a fault except when he isn’t, and even then, he entertains my questions. More often than not, we talk long into the night until we’re watching the sunrise together as he does needlework, the kind that uses colourful floss. There are other times when he tries to get me to remember certain moments as he picks at old scars along my body, but I never do. I do ask him about himself, and to each question, he is surprisingly straightforward.
This is how I learn that Death doesn’t lie.
He cheats, though, and makes no bones about it whenever he stares at me from the other side of the table with grey eyes and cheekbones sharp enough to tear into me. I don’t know how to play chess, but Death does. In this iteration, he’s a world-renowned champion, yet despite it all, here in my cramped apartment, he always cheats.
‘What can you do about it anyways?’ he asks me later, his body cradled between my thighs so that he can trace the sigils across my ribs and breasts that he’s drawn with nails and teeth.
‘I can leave you,’ I murmur with my eyes closed and taste faint copper on my molars.
‘You wouldn’t,’ he challenges with naked amusement, then pinches the small swell of my breasts.
‘Then stop cheating.’
He, of course, doesn’t.
I get back at him after the paramedics revive me; apparently, I’m allergic to avocados. Then, when I know it’s impossible for him to travel across the ocean from a tournament, I do indeed leave him, if only momentarily. As I cross over into a new life, I learn two things, one of them less surprising than the other. The first revelation: the only ceiling fan in an apartment I’ll never step foot inside again actually holds my weight. And the second? Well, despite being a cheater, Death hates being cheated.
I expect our next reunion to be a bitter one, so when I find myself in a village too familiar to be a coincidence, I’m at a loss for words. Death greets me at the riverbank and sings.
After that, he waits longer than he ever has before he comes and finds me, so long that I’m honestly caught off guard when he approaches me in the Red Light District, his accent thick, features chiselled and blond coif neatly combed. A night later, he buys my debt and rips the souls out of my employer and my would-be client. That’s how he becomes my benefactor, but we don’t really speak about that anymore.
‘Why me?’ For the first time after so many centuries of doing this, I get the courage to ask.
Death sucks his teeth at one of the memories he says I keep forgetting, then drags me up against his chest. Nightlife in Shibuya makes me dizzy, but he anchors me as if he’s afraid I might get lost in the crowd. This close, and with the way the bass vibrates through his body, I’m almost convinced he has a heartbeat. He doesn’t, but I lean in closer nevertheless, smelling smoke and hellfire and damned souls and iron underneath his cologne. His arms wrap around me, and for some reason, I think of water and the colour yellow.
‘What if I were to tell you Hades never kidnapped Persephone?’ he asks.
My nose begins to bleed.
Bibi Osha lives on the East Coast where she writes speculative fiction typically with a non-Western slant. When she isn't writing about otherworldly beings, troubled characters and everything else in between you can find her in the company of music and possibly crocheting. Her work has been published or forthcoming in The Dark and Martian.