“You don’t know what you ask, little one,” he whispered.
The man who moved like shadows checked his measuring stick, again. “A shorter life would be better. You could die at fifty-six. That would be a good time for you.”
“No,” came the reply from the woven cradle.
From outside frogs and insects sang their nightly chorus, obscuring the other sounds in the small house. The newborn wiggled in his crib, but no one dared check on him, right now: it was midnight, and the dark grey man would be there.
The man tried to mask a sigh as he continued to study the staff’s glowing year marks that only he could see.
“Seventy, then.” He knew the infant would not agree to it, but that gave him fifteen more years to bargain with–one at a time, if needed, to tire the child of haggling. That would spare you the worst of it, he thought.
“Ninety-two.” The child spoke with neither anger nor belligerence. Just finality.
The man's long hair and clothes waved slowly as he stood beside the rattan crib, though no breeze stirred. The dark grey strands matched his belted tunic and flowing pants, blurring his outline in the dark room. From the suspended cradle, glimmering eyes rested steadily on him as he again glanced at the measuring stick, it's dark kamagong wood worn smooth and shiny from millennia of use; however, the year marks were fresh, adjusting themselves for the infant.
“Why, child?” he whispered.
“I need to. I feel it.” The newborn's eyes glistened up at him, large and innocent.
The man turned from the infant’s gaze, his eyelids tightly closed, teeth clenched. But you don’t know what’s coming. I’m trying to save you from that. You can’t stop it.
He opened his eyes and stared at the indentions on his stick. To anyone else, they would simply look like bands carved at uneven intervals along the shaft–some years held more than others, for the boy; but to the dark grey man, the staff revealed what lay between the bands. The man had seen the child’s ninety-second year: he would endure sadness, pain, and little else.
The shadowed man stared at the previous year, at first seeing nothing but his own reflection on the staff. Slowly, other images, other sensations, came to him. At what would be the boy’s ninety-first year, flames devoured and danced. The sounds of bare feet pounding dirt paths and gunshots–so many gunshots–overlaid with screams and barked commands surrounded him. The scents of smoke and blood pervaded, choked, gagged.
The man clamped his eyes and cringed, trying to escape the vision. When his eyes snapped open, there was nothing on the staff but the potential year-marks of the boy’s life and his own reflection staring back--not from above the child's ninety-second mark, but from the previous year's.
“You don’t know what you ask, little one,” the man repeated, softly.
“How will I die?”
The dark grey man flowed back around to face the baby boy, without disturbing the warm night air.
The infant nodded.
“In sorrow. With a heavy heart and in great pain.”
“But don’t I get to choose?”
“Yes, little one, it is your right. But at ninety-two you will die alone in a hospital room, or in the house of one you will not know, but who will take pity on you, seeing you have a short time to live. If you choose this, he will not be in the room with you when you die.”
The baby flashed his eyes down. When they came back up, they were filling with tears and his chin quivered, wrinkled with a deep frown.
“Do not cry, little one,” he said, looking toward the door. “If they come, I must take you, now…and it’s not your time, yet."
He brushed warm fingers across the child's cheek.
"You will have some good in your life. I only want to spare you the pain that comes at the end you asked for.”
“But you’ll be there?” The shaking chin paused.
“Then I won’t really be alone.”
A moment passed, and the child's tears receded.
“You don’t want that.” The man shook his head.
“You’ll lose everything!” Anguished charcoal eyes looked down into innocent black ones. "You’ll see it, know it. You’ll survive, and be aware of it all.”
Still gazing at the tiny figure lying before him, the man tried to gentle his quiet, but steely, voice.
“Your mind won’t slip, even when you wish it would: you’ll remember every beautiful thing, every person, every aspect of the life you loved that will never be, again… And you’ll be the only person who does.”
The baby looked up at him with large, innocent eyes.
“Then I need to be there to tell our story.”
The grey, shadowed man closed his eyes, but the child’s remained fixed.
“Ninety-two years. I want to die in the stranger’s house. Please.”
With a quiet breath, the man nodded. He lifted his stick, once more, and recorded the boy’s life-span. The kamagong sparked as if it would ignite; but the light dwindled, leaving dark, silvery lines to mark his birth and the death he’d chosen, the other years of his life carved in black lines between them.
The dark grey man tucked the staff into his wide belt; then he silently reached into the basket-like cradle and scooped up the infant.
“Rest now, little one.”
“Will I remember this?”
“No. That is the rule: you choose–it is your right–but you won’t remember until you see me again.”
The baby yawned.
“When will I see you next?”
“At the end: in ninety-two years, and not before. But you’ll recognize me, then. I’ll be there for you.”
The child was small; he supported the little body with one hand and arm. His other hand he laid carefully over the baby’s stomach, warming him. The baby wrapped a tiny fist around the man’s forefinger.
Strong, for such a little one, the man thought. He rubbed the silken hand with his thumb, very gently.
When the child’s breathing was soft and regular, he laid him back in the cradle. The dark grey man who moved like shadows stood, watching over the infant for a time, then faded into the warm night air.