Death was not involved in this, though you will blame her anyway. You will stare up at the reddened sky. You will look down at the cracks beneath your feet. You will scream and swear and sweat and blame, blame, blame.
The cars and the factories were not Death’s invention. She is older than invention itself, as old as the first particles of the universe that crashed together and created annihilation. She did not create your downfall. You managed that all on your own.
It began, as it ended, with greed. Humans are terrible at planning for the long-term. Even after all these decades, you have not realized that. Your greed grabs you by your throats and you forget about your children, and your children’s children, and their children after that. You forget that what you do to your world persists long after Death comes to greet you.
So it began with greed. In was innocent enough, at first. The first of your civilizations tore up the land to plant crops, urging your earth to bear more fruitful bounties. You cannot be blamed for that. Your crops flourished and so did your people, and thus the innocent expansion began.
I have spent many nights arguing with the others about when that innocence was lost. Some say it was the first time one human being enslaved another. Others say it was when currency overtook barter and greed became the only universal language. They see your corruption as a single, defining moment.
I disagree. I think the fall of man was gradual. Some part of you was lost every time someone said, “That could be damaging,” and someone else said, “Yes, but at least we’ll turn a profit.”
Irrigation used to be trenches of water in family fields. Heat used to be a few logs in winter. Travel used to be a well-brushed horse, warm in its knitted stable blanket.
Your riverbeds are dry, drained for your consumption. Your homes are warm, but the liquid power of your ancestors’ bones no longer fills the stomach of the world. You pumped them out and set them alight. Your old horses are beaten and bruised. Your new ones are made of soulless metal.
Death did not choose these things. Hers is a kingdom of joy, and joy is rooted in memory. Fireworks are not joyful in and of themselves, it is their partnership with holidays that brings smiles to your faces. She knows this. She knows that her kingdom cannot be happy if your time on earth does not have enough good memories to sustain you, after.
She came to my door when the storms began.
“Thousands,” was all she said, and I understood. Wind and water and greed brought more sadness to her kingdom than she ever could have asked for.
I held her hand when the lakes dried up.
I heard her shouts as the temperature slowly rose.
I held her back as your companies dropped waste into your world and your children sickened.
When the fires started, Death wept.
You wept too, I know. It was only a few houses at first, far away from the cities. A tough drought season, nothing more. You turned off the news and made dinner for your family.
It crept closer in the night. Parched fields beneath a stoic sky are ripe for the burning. The crops crumpled and curled to ash, and when the fires reached your doorstep, you loaded into the car and drove away.
What you always seem to forget is that nature does not tire as humans do. Fire does not rest after a day of work, nor does pestilence, or cold. These are not evil things. They are theories made flesh, concepts plucked from the universe and given physical form. The fire does not hate you, but it was made to burn, and you are in its path.
There was nowhere for you to go. Not forever. The fire caught up to your hotel in the country, and it chased you to your cousin’s house in the city. Once, there may have been enough fire to douse it. There is not now. Your reservoirs are empty, and still the fire advances.
Death does not like to see your children coughing on the smoke. She knows that when they arrive in her kingdom, there will not be enough memories within them. They cannot have an afterlife if they never truly lived.
You think that perhaps you can escape across the sea. The news proves you wrong. For where is untouched by the destruction your ancestors have wrought? Where there is not fire, there is flood. Where nature does not revolt there are too few resources to sustain life of any kind. You are stuck on your final piece of land, with the disasters your people created.
A moment will come when you know it is the end. You will stand on an empty plain, on dirt that may once have been mud. Now it is split between your feet like deep veins. The cracks spiral off into the distance farther than you can see. Behind you, the fires do not rage. They aren’t angry, merely bright. Their light throws your silhouette into relief against the barren horizon.
The skies above you are the bright red of your blood. Weeks ago they were black with soot, and you thought it was the most terrifying thing you had ever seen. “Like eternal night,” you told a friend. “I’d take anything over this darkness.”
Looking now at the fiery sky, you realize you were wrong. At least night comes with sleep. This color does not promise cool dew in the morning or sweet dreams under the stars. You cannot see the stars. You think this is the color of Death.
It isn’t. Death’s favorite color is green.
You lost your shoes somewhere a few miles back. It should have been a sign to stop, to sit and let the inevitable overtake you. But even now, even when hell itself has risen up to meet you, complacency is impossible. You would rather walk miles on bleeding feet than lie down and give up.
I admire you for this. Even when the water burned away, there were still humans who made the trek to their nearest lake or river. Always they would look at the dusty earth as if it were a surprise. Always they would turn to each other and say, “Perhaps it will rain tomorrow.”
So here you stand. I do not know what will finally bring your end. Maybe it will be the fires behind you. Maybe it will be the thirst within you. Maybe one of the infections in your cracked skin will hit your bloodstream and eat you from the inside out. No matter what kills you, it will be painful. No matter what you wish, it will be slow.
Death did not choose this. She would rather you thrive before you join her, so you can bring new songs and stories to those who have been with her for eons. She wants you smiling when you see your parents once again, and their parents before them. They will find joy in the life you lived.
Or, they would have. But your story will be cut short by fire and floods and disease and hunger and thirst and generations of selfishness. You will die on that plain, beneath that red sky, alone. You will die.
And Death will weep.