A strange man walked through the small, unassuming town of Derwood one morning. He was not from here, that much was obvious, because Derwood was a beautiful, and quaint place. Its few homes rested, or rather perched, on a vibrant green hillside that overlooked a small, calm, piece of a much larger ocean. The streets were archaic, like everything else in that place, and so they were still narrow and made of cobblestone; and they winded through the homes and markets whose roofs and window sills were every color of the rainbow.
It was picturesque: like a hidden village made only to photograph and put on a stamp, not a place to actually visit.
But the stranger did, and he did so quite often. By his count it’d only been one month since his last appearance -not that he would be remembered by any of the locals- and he’d been here many times before that as well. He was a traveler! Unchanging in all his years, and the years of the people he’d passed along the way.
But he would always leave quickly, and never talk to more than one or two people in a single one of his visits to the corners of the world. He always came back too: Visit, leave, return, repeat. No exceptions. Maybe he just liked the act of traveling itself. The journey versus the destination or whatnot.
That day, his visit to Derwood was no different. Here, like everywhere else, he’d need lodging. So he walked the cobbled streets of this old hill-turned-campsite-turned-village-turned- town and slowly began to remember it’s arrangement.
Places tend to blend together once one has seen as many as this man. And for all the years he’d reluctantly collected, it had become no surprise to see how quickly the towns and villages of the world changed while he was gone.
Eventually he found the inn, only one was necessary for a post-stamp-town such as this, because this place at least had remained the same. He looked through the black tinted glass door with a ‘Welcome!’ painted in gold, but he did not go in, did not even knock, or try the handle. He just looked inside and knew that even if he shouted -which he wouldn’t, his voice was perpetually sore- the innkeepers would not let him in.
They almost never did; no matter where he went. So then why look for the inn? Perhaps he just wanted to see if he could find it. If his memory might have hopefully started slipping. But it hadn’t; never did.
So he sighed a sigh that wasn’t quite sadness, and turned on his heels. This time walking towards a place in Derwood where he had known hospitality; a small house not far from where he was.
As he walked he thought about the concept of hospitality: The ancient Greeks had called it ‘xenia’, and taught it through Odysseus. The Christiant’s did so through the story of their messiah’s birth. And so many more stories in between. But it seemed, at least to the stranger, that the modern world was becoming less and less hospitable, less willing to invite a strange man into their homes; especially with the way this particular traveler looked…
When he arrived at his destination the stranger received a shock. Between him and his only hope for bed and roof that night was a wrought iron fence. The iron bars were thin and ornate, but it was tall, and imposing. Barbed wire lined the perimeter of the property at foot level, and there was no lock on its grand gate: signs that only the critters of the forest were not allowed inside. And so the stranger simply let himself in.
The garden was as absolutely beautiful as ever. Walking across the stone steps to the home he saw carnations, orchids, lilies, and many other beautiful arrangements covering every inch of the space in front of the home.
There were no giant stone fountains or statues like in the manors one might see in magazines, but it was clear that whoever had grown this small patch of the world had certainly put a lot of time, and perhaps all of their love into it.
For that reason alone he made sure not to touch any of the delicate flowers, not even nudge them with his shoe; lest they wilt. Why? Well, if some had green thumbs, then this stranger had the exact opposite throughout his entire body, and he had had it for as long as he could remember.
The house itself was simple: with russet roof tiles, a cream-colored facade, light blue window sills, and a bright red door right in the middle of it all. It was the second time he’d seen that door; and it amazed him just as much as the first time.
The door knocker was heavy, and it was only a few moments before the owner of the home stood before the stranger; the first and only person he would see in Derwood today.
“Who’s there?” A voice barked at the stranger.
It was an old man with white hair and a round nose who asked the question. His rosy cheeks had deeply engraved smile lines falling from his eyes, but it appeared they hadn’t been used in a long time. The home-owner’s initial annoyance did not match his rounded face, but even that crossness was cleaned away when he laid wide eyes on the visitor at his door.
“Hello, to you as well.” The strange visitor responded. He had a voice with a very low timber -it would easily fill a room if he weren’t standing outside- but it was also slightly hoarse, and rattled at the back of his throat: much more fitting for that of an old man. And he was a very old man.
The visitor -whose name does not matter- was gaunt; the bags under his eyes were a deep brown against the ghostly pale of his paper-thin skin. His cheeks had sunken so far that in the dark, and in the right light, his face might look like a skull. His body was painfully thin, he rarely ate, and he was so tall that he towered over the rosy-cheeked man by more than three heads. Yet he still moved swiftly, like a shadow escaping the dawn.
But more notable than even all that, was the elegant suit he always wore. It was blacker than even the night of a new moon, so much so that it almost made one believe it drew light into it. As if a black hole had been ironed, threaded, and put on the shoulders of this extraordinarily odd man.
“What, uh...What brings you here?!” The rosy man said, trying to sound powerful and indignant, even in the face of what looked like a specter.
“I am tired, sir. I was wondering if you might offer this old man a bed for just tonight.” His words were respectful, but still could not distract from his sonorous voice.
A weak looking man with a powerful voice, it was an odd combination.
The rosy man gulped, “There is a hotel for you to use. Down in the village, not far from-”
“I’m afraid they’ve turned me away.” The stranger lied, first of the night.
“Why would they do that!”
“Something about black mold, said my weak constitution would not do for such a place. At least for the time being.” The stranger coughed in between a few words, just for the effect of hopefully making the would-be-inn-keeper worry. Here was the tipping point.
“Fine.” The rosy-cheeked man didn’t look at the stranger when he said it; just stared at the ground and never softened his tone. If he was going to play host, then he would be a damn bad one.
No matter, the stranger thought, he has invited me in.
The inside was as the visitor recalled, he’d been there once before, all filled with antiques, quilts, a spare artifact or two, tacky knick knacks, and furniture with upholstery portraying all sorts of birds and scenes of nature. The woman who had designed this had followed a simple rule: to love what she loved and have it in view.
Yet, somehow, it all managed to fit together. The lemon-colored walls and wood panelled floor were a space that held a lifetime of memories. And both the stranger-turned-guest and the rosy man-turned-host admired it all; every bit of it.
“Like a tacky museum, I know.” The host said, waving his hand over it all.
“It looks beautiful.” The guest said. “Your wife did the decorating?”
“Who said I was married?” The host spit back.
“Well, you’re far too grumpy to have designed a place like this.” It was a risk, saying something so familiar to the rosy-cheeked man, the stranger knew that, but he needed him to open up quickly; because the sun was setting outside the window, and there wasn’t much time before he left.
Luckily, very luckily, the host chuckled. Though he didn’t say anything more about the subject.
“Do you want something to eat?” The rosy-cheeked man said this as he walked into the small kitchen -also populated with ceramic cats, pigs, and children playing along the countertops-.
“Do you have tea?”
“Wow! To be so picky even as a guest. That’d be almost admirable if it wasn’t so damn annoying.” He set out a pot of water to boil.
“You and I both know that at our age, digesting food at this late hour is inadvisable at best.” The rosy-cheeked man made a noise between a grunt and a chuckle at the remark.
“Maybe at my age you’re right.” He put in the tea bags. “At your age, I don’t know what the rules are! What are you, a million? Probably babysat Jesus or something.”
This time the stranger laughed; it sounded like a mix of thunder and a car refusing to start. This made the rosy-cheeked man flinch slightly, then smile at his own achievement.
“Something like that.” The stranger said, and took the cup of steaming tea that was offered to him.
It was silent after that, both men sitting in the odd upholstery sipping their cups of piping-hot tea. The stranger’s cup had a painting of two frogs fencing, he was sure the rosy-cheeked man’s cup had a similar bizarre image, but they were sitting across from each other and so it was too far to see.
The hands of the clock on the wall in front of the stranger ticked, and the more they did the more he remembered why he was here, and so they became louder with each second. There was some comfort in the knowledge that the clock that threatened him so much, was also of the variety to expel a cuckoo bird every hour on the dot. There was always comedy in tragedy, but not so obvious as in that moment.
The rosy-cheeked man on the other hand, simply drank, and sat, and stared at the floor.
Looking out the window the stranger could see that the sun had already touched the horizon, the orange clash of light was now spilling into the room and had hit a peculiar work of art made of glass; which dispersed that golden light in every direction like a miniature sun in that living room.
“My wife did that.” The host said. It had been more than an hour since one of them had spoken.
“She found that piece in Mexico and placed it on the coffee table when she came back. The next morning we realized it could do that trick with the light, and she cried in amazement.” He didn’t look up from his cup of tea. “I also couldn’t believe it. I called it a disco ball and she slapped me in the arm for being so simple-minded.
“That day she gathered some materials and made it into a chandelier of sorts ‘Now,’ she said, ‘It’s like we have our very own star in the living room.’”
The rosy-cheeked man finally looked up from his cup. He looked at that piece of art, and his teary eyes reflected the light, and shined as well.
That was the crack that broke the damn.
They talked all through the night in the small, quirky, living room: the unlikely innkeeper and his very odd guest. He talked only about his wife, and as the moon fell from the sky he never felt at a loss for a tale.
Apparently she had been everywhere, and dragged him along to most everywhere. “Without her I would have stayed in Derwood forever....For a little while, we were the rulers of the world.”
He spoke of her character: how willfully she lived, and never shut up about what was right and what was fun and how those were the only two things that mattered in the world.
How as a young man he never thought he would love that much. “Everyone told me marriage was work. And sometimes it was.” He admitted with a wave of a hand. “But most times, marriage was my entire goddamn life. Not a hobby to my name, nor an aspiration. Just her. Just her.”
“And Death!” The stranger flinched, “He took her from me!”
For a moment the rose-cheeked man with the smile lines had become the stranger had met at the door; his face red and his white eyebrows furrowed in suffering disguised as anger. The stranger could only sit and watch.
“He took her in her sleep.” His voice lowered again as he looked down at his shoes again. “At least he did that for her. The bastard.”
The stranger tensed up, and for the life of him couldn’t come up with anything good to say. So instead he simply commented, “She sounds wonderful.”
As if he hadn’t met her himself.
More time passed, more stories were told, and eventually the rosy-cheeked man said something rather interesting.
“She’s the reason I let you in, you know.” The innkeeper said. “She said that anytime a stranger comes to your door begging for kindness, you give it. Or else they might turn you into a banana slug.”
“Oh, that’s because of the Greeks and their fear of turning into slugs because they lacked hospitality.”
“I told her how careless that was; letting in a stranger.” He took a pause to clutch his chest. “But when I saw you tonight, I thought I could be like her. Just for a night.”
“You miss her.” The guest finally said, and the innkeeper looked at him dumbfounded.
“Of course I miss her. What kind of question is that?”
“Well...I’ve tried consoling so many people so many times. And the metaphors, and platitudes, and promises that they're in a better place….All those things rarely work.” His voice rattled in his quiet speech.
“Because really, the one thing that matters, the only thing, is that they’re not here. With you.” The guest looked at the host in the eyes, really looked. “Right?”
The rosy-cheeked man’s eyes let go tears. And he said “Yes.”
“And if you could meet with her again, if you could be together?”
“What else could make me happier, right friend?”
“Right.” The stranger-turned-guest-turned-friend said.
“John,” Death said with his same sonorous voice, “Would you like to shake my hand?”
John looked down, saw there was no flesh on the hand extended to him, and shook it.
And just like that, the deal was done.
Night passed quickly, after all John had spoken through most of it, and when morning came Death opened the front door to that quaint little home. The same red door that he had been allowed to pass through twice, and as he closed it, he knew no one else would ever be able to enter that home again with the permission of one of the finest couples he had ever killed.
Again he passed through that garden, still making sure not to touch the flowers, but he couldn’t make it past the gate.
At that point he looked back at the old house with his older eyes, and thought about the sixty or so odd years the lovely pair had spent together before they met him.
That lovely house was now empty, for the first time in a long time because of him. Should he feel bad for that?
No. Death smiled. Because he could keep looking at the beauty of that garden, how loved it had been when Judith was alive to give it life. Life to life it survived.
And when he killed her, took her from her beloved garden and even more beloved husband, he mourned her. Though he almost never mourned.
And so Death dreaded the day when he would come back for John, because he expected a garden overrun by weeds and victim to the pests of the outside world.
But he was wrong.
That garden was not forgotten after he took her. This man, who was grumpy, and crude, and suffering like no other can suffer; still tended to the garden she loved. All the way up until the day Death took him too.
And so now truly the garden would die, or at least transform into something else unrecognizable to her or him.
But this time...Death would not mourn the garden’s death. Not a bit. Why? Well isn’t it obvious? Well it’s because the garden’s death meant that the lovely couple was together again.
Death left Derwood smiling. It’s not something he often did in his travels, and that is all because of John and Judith.