Death and the Ardor of Music

Submitted into Contest #121 in response to: Write about someone in a thankless job.... view prompt



The melody of the grieving is quite a symphony of its own. 

The weeping woman does not notice me pass by her, but she shivers slightly nonetheless, her warm tears streaking down her trembling face.

All around me, there are quiet sniffles or loud sobs, the masterpiece of a haunted composer. Off in the distance, the accompaniment plays: a long, beeping noise with no beginning or end, merely a dreadful existence that signals the end of another. 

When I take the soul in my arms, it has already begun to cool.

Nearby, a child wails loudly, a rapidly increasing crescendo of notes in this discordant orchestra. The haunted composer and the anguished conductor consort together on a grim stage, as the deaths of the beloved always come with the most sorrowful compositions, 

But I cannot dwell on the disheartening sight much longer. It is not my place to observe the actions of mortals nor do I have such time to do so. There are still many souls to gather in this theatre and its never-ending chorus. 

With the soul safely tucked in the folds of my robes, I silently leave the room, the vestiges of the music’s tempo still clinging to my back. The building I am in is vast and filled with the living and the dying, souls departing and entering. Even through the walls and the floors, I can sense Life lingering to watch infants take their first breaths. 

While I move from room to room, pausing at beds where the soul quivers between the living and the dead, I muse on how both Life and I are heralded by the sounds of sobbing, and yet the audience varies so greatly with both. 

In the few moments where Life and I stand together, I have seen worried smiles, elation at the welcoming of a new soul, and terror at how quickly it could be snuffed out like the flame of a disfigured candle. I have witnessed heartbreak countless times, and what a word heartbreak is, far too infinitesimal of a term for such an unfathomable feeling.

I am not a sentimental type of being; I cannot afford to be. Death is cold and indifferent when it comes to the collecting of souls, regardless of wealth or status or all the other trivial things mortals quarrel so furiously over. I cannot falter, even when the soul I am collecting is so young, like a bright fire dimmed all too quickly. 

It does not surprise me, therefore, to see wailing and despair wherever I travel, for who would gladly welcome Death? 

I do not claim to be self-righteous, and yet I cannot help but wonder why so many praise my counterpart when Life too does not discriminate between wealth or status. Even those living in the deepest, squalid sectors of human filth receive Life regardless of whether they wanted to or not, no matter how crowded or impoverished they are.

Why thank Life when one’s own existence is uncontrollable?

Of course, such thoughts are beyond even my comprehension, and thus I give them no merit. I do not idly contemplate such philosophy nor do I reflect upon the paradoxical nature of human emotions. My only objective is to gather the departed and safely guide them to their eternal rest. 

Make no mistake, I am not bitter or frustrated by how Life and Death receive such contrasting receptions. I am merely deliberating over our differences. I do not get easily frustrated by such things; I am simply curious, if not a little amused. If anything, perhaps it is good that mortals do not welcome me like they do Life. 

If I were to be greeted so easily by the masses, then what poor existence must those souls have endured to warrant such a reception? Mortals love to live; their breaths puff up, so quiet yet fierce, with the joy of living too great to be meekly herded into my arms. It is no wonder that they often try to devise ways to slander and evade me. 

There are a few times where they surprise me, especially the ones who hang between the balance and yet come out alive. On several occasions, I have stood at what is arguably one’s deathbed and hovered over the trembling soul, waiting for the moment that it’ll snap like a piece of twine and fall limp, only for it to refuse my touch. 

To surprise Death is a great feat indeed. 

When I descend further down the building, I sense the presence of many little souls, all so young and vibrant and warm. There is a profound feeling of joy hanging around the ward, so intense in its ubiquity that I wonder if one would walk in here and inhale not oxygen but euphoria instead. 

Life is not too far ahead of me, and whether or not it is a good thing that Death and Life walk so closely together is not something I can impartially decide. I find my way into another area with more frail souls than I had expected, all too weak and dim for such young beings. 

When I enter, it is as if a chill has spread throughout the entire vicinity, making the already frigid place all the more gelid. The little souls are far too cold, and while I have said that I am not a sentimental being, it brings me no pleasure to have to rip such tender things from the world, especially when they have just been conceived. 

However, of mine, if it can even be called that, is not one to be taken lightly, and I can afford no exceptions, even if the act of doing so only unleashes tragedy in my wake. 

Do not misunderstand, however; I am indifferent, but I am not unfeeling. 

Even with the insouciance with which I fulfill my duty, I must pause for a moment when I turn to one of the little souls and gently take it into my arms.

I take my leave, the souls I’ve collected all bundled up in my embrace, and try to ignore the sorrowful melodies I am sure to hear soon, rent from bottomless grief. I do my best to tune out the shaky motifs I hear starting already, filled with jagged notes and all too many sharps. 

My apologies are worthless and will go unheard, yet I still think of saying one when I gaze back at the faces of all the infants. Alas, it does not matter; if I apologized every time I took a young soul who did not deserve such a fate, I would’ve lost my voice long ago. 

Somewhere, a gaze settles on me, and for a moment I think it is Life, once more straining against our armistice, yet the thing watching me is too feeble and dull to be my opposite. 

The souls in my arms flutter slightly as I move quietly through the halls, careful to not disturb all the doctors and nurses moving around. I hear a quiet ostinato throughout all the commotion, yet it is not doleful or melancholy, but rather a hushed rhythm that seems almost enervated. 

When I enter the room of the weary soul, I find a decrepit man, nearly buried in a grave of blankets and cushions. The sunken wrinkles of his face and rattle of his breath betray his debilitated state, so paper-thin that I worry if I am not gentle enough, I could accidentally tear him in half. 

 Again, the tired melody plays; the man is humming even unto death. His eyes, however, seem to echo the days of his youth, bright and ablaze with flames. His body is shattered and exhausted, but his gaze is piercing, keen with either the wisdom of age or the vitality of youth. 

I come to stand beside him, watching as he murmurs his melody, when he suddenly stops and turns to look at me as if sensing my presence. I have learned that over the years, the most compelling parts of my duty are when the souls I am about to collect stare at me, no longer breathing in the grandeur of Life, almost as if they are beckoning me forth. 

Mortals spend their entire lives dodging me or trying to cheat me as best they can, with money or whatever advantage they have been granted. In the end, however, they always find themselves in my presence. It is therefore quite an interesting sight when some of them see me and welcome me with open arms. 

The man speaks, in what the doctors will probably assume to be a moment of delirium, his brain long since addled by age and disease. 

“Hello, my friend. Have you come to take me at last?” 

His voice is a barely comprehensible wheeze, but his words ring out clearly. I merely place my hand on his bed, a silent reassurance. Perhaps others would consider it a surprise for someone to greet Death so easily as a companion, but his soul is old and worn from the expanse of time. Life has nothing left to offer him, and he is ready to depart. 

The man closes his eyes, letting the music fade. He smiles weakly, not out of a loss of courage but the betrayal of his body, and speaks once more, a withered rasp slowly sliding out from his mouth. 

“Thank you.” 

That scarcely uttered phrase, usually only spoken by the suffering, is not one I am sure if I should welcome or not, but I accept it nonetheless. 

There, in a quiet room with dying music, I take the man’s soul into my arms, next to the countless others I have collected. 

It is time for them to go home.

November 26, 2021 17:43

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Michael Harrison
16:25 Dec 02, 2021

Hi Potato! Death here has a very clear voice, its bit unusual but that fits solidly with the character. A couple of notes: -I would have liked to see a little more showing and little less telling. Don't worry, we all do this, especially in a short story context. For example, in the first paragraph where you describe the old man, I am not sure you need the word "decrepit." You go on to give a lot of great detail about how the man is sitting and such that you don't need to tell me he's decrepit. I also would have liked to have seen Deat...


A. Potato
22:29 Dec 02, 2021

Thank you so much for the feedback! I'll definitely keep your advice in mind!


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Spring Rose
12:03 Dec 02, 2021

Hi, I got paired up with you for critique circle this week. I loved how you interpreted the prompt because really, who has a more thankless job than death? Amazing idea. I’m absolutely in love with the beginning of your story, I could practically hear the music as I read. That said, I wish you’d kept up the theme of music more thoroughly throughout the rest of the story. It kinda felt like you’d taken this great idea and then moved on and completely forgot about it, you did return to it towards the end but only briefly. The comparison betwe...


A. Potato
22:33 Dec 02, 2021

Thank you so much for the suggestions! I'll admit I was a little conflicted about ending the story the way I did, but I eventually decided that it would add a more bittersweet flip to the story since Death takes note that only people who are suffering will thank him.


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