On a ridiculously dark night in November, a man named Benjamin Black was on the run.
He crept down the sides of buildings, stubbing his cold fingers on their brickwork, as he clutched them for support. In the unfriendly darkness, the only sound he could hear was the tap tapping of his own boots and the thunderous drumming of his own heart. This was sure to end in misery.
At long last, he came to an opening at the end of the city. It was foggy here and bitterly cold and his cheeks and nose stung in the air. He took a few wary steps forward, his cloak billowing about around him like some caped hero. He was no hero. He was nothing but a coward and he deserved everything that came to him. Ascending forwards Benjamin’s heart gave a leap of terror. Had there always been a graveyard here? Or was death playing a cruel joke on him? It didnít matter, he had already spotted a dishevelled looking crow eyeing him up from the closest gravestone and Benjamin believed that the crow could only mean trouble.
Mustering all the air he could find in his lungs, he bellowed loud and clear,
“Enough! I give up! I’ve had enough of your games! Kill me and get it over with!”
He fell back a few steps, trembling as he pulled down his hood to reveal a mane of long, tangled, dark hair. He looked surprisingly unwell for a man with such a physique, his face was pale and lined with worry and guilt and his eyes were dull like all the life had been sucked out of them.
Nobody came and the silence was deafening. The crow stifled a yawn upon the gravestone, still looking at Benjamin intently. Benjamin felt unnerved, he crouched to the ground, his heart still racing inside him and picked up a small, sharp rock from beside his feet. Ruthlessly and angrily, Benjamin threw the rock hard at the bird, revelling in the effect it caused. The crow had been hit sharply in the stomach and had fallen from the gravestone with a piercing screech. Consumed in his own mad behaviour and frightfully scared that heíd just made a grave mistake, Benjamin proceeded to gather more rocks in his gloved hands and prepared himself for the crowís return.
But the crow did not return and once again Benjamin was trapped in the silence of the night. Benjamin bounced from one foot to the other, still holding the rocks tightly in his arms. Had he defeated death? -- Unlikely. Not knowing whether the crow had died or not bothered him slightly, as he started to make his way back through the city the way he had come, it bothered him so much that when only a third of the way back he stopped abruptly and headed back to the graveyard.
This time, the graveyard felt much colder and Benjamin found himself dropping his rock weapons so that he could fold his arms about himself for warmth. He walked slowly to the gravestone where the crow had taken its plunge, his stomach knotted unpleasantly at the unknowing of what he’d find. He put his gloved, trembling hand upon the gravestone, almost recoiling away from it, as it was bitterly cold. And then slowly he dipped his head forward to see what was behind it.
It was a book that he found. No crow, Benjamin presumed that the crow had either left after the assault to heal its wounds or had been dragged off by a fox or something. But what of the book? Why was it here? And what was it for? The book was beautiful and old. It was bound in a luxurious, black leather and engraved with symbols that Benjamin couldn’t begin to decipher. The pages looked decayed after years of use and there was no title or blurb that Benjamin could see. Uneasily, Benjamin opened the book and what he found was rather odd.
There were names, thousands of them and dates and times all packed together in an untidy scrawl. He flicked through the pages, his dirty hands smudging the ink in some places until something quite strange happened. A cold burst of wind gushed over Benjamin and his newfound book, flicking the pages so that they arrived at the last page with writing upon it. The page was only half full of names and times and the date was marked clearly of that of today, the 21st of November. Benjamin shivered as the wind stopped abruptly and the pages settled on this page. And then, quite extraordinarily, ink started to form at the end of the recent times and dates. It was magical, there was nobody writing it but the letters formed one by one, as if a ghost was sitting beside Benjamin and writing over his shoulder.
The bound book teetered in Benjamin’s quaking hands and, feeling suddenly terrified, he threw the book as far away from him as possible, as he knew it meant no good. His throw however was particularly lame and the book landed only inches away from his crouched frame. He let out a cry of terror as the book landed on the same page and the names continued to scrawl themselves upon it, as though nothing had interrupted it.
“W-what is this?” he asked his icy surroundings.
He heard a ruffle of feathers as the crow landed once again upon the same gravestone Benjamin was perched beside. He looked at the bird and felt its cold, provocative stare.
And then a hard crunch upon the icy ground behind him sounded and brought shivers down his neck and spine. The wind was audible, as it rushed harshly past his ears and a tall, cadaverous shadow loomed over him, casting Benjamin, the gravestone and the crow into darkness.
“Benjamin Black I presume?” the voice was low and emotionless. It wasn’t particularly dark and booming, but indistinct and subdued.
Benjamin jerked whilst sat in his crouched position, he hadn’t realised it, but he had been sitting curled up, trembling with his hands over his head. Very slowly and fearfully, Benjamin chanced a glance at the figure towering above him. He was overcome by fear, but more than anything he wished that he could face the reality of what was happening to him like a man. He had always supposed heíd be braver than this when the time came. He instantly regretted taking such a glance. The figure was worse than he had ever expected, tall, skeleton -like and robed, with a pallid, pinched face and great hollow sockets for eyes. He returned to his foetal-like position, the image of the creature flashing unforgettably through his mind. He pinched himself twice but it did nothing for his sanity or his nerves.
The spectre made a noise rather like a sigh and proceeded with his interrogation of Benjamin by picking Mr Black up by the collar of his cloak. Benjamin cried out and kicked out, unable to believe the strength of a creature so limp and bony looking. He was hung upon the branch of a willowy, leafless tree where he squirmed and begged for a second chance.
“P-please Mr Grim Reaper! Please I b-beg of you!”
The skeleton-like man looked bemused, under his cloak of worn, black cotton. He grinned towards the crow who was watching all of this with acute curiosity.
“That’s Mr. Mighty Grim Reaper to you”, he said, prodding Benjamin in the stomach with a long, bony finger.
Benjamin withered at the spectre’s touch, “Mr M-mighty G-grim Reaper!” he pleaded.
The Reaper smiled, an indented, hollow smile that looked rather like the smile you’d make on a piece of toast when you bit a face into it. He looked at the book lying carelessly upon the dead grass of the graveyard and he picked it up carefully and dusted it off with the utmost precision. It was clearly very important to him. Still the words were scrawling themselves across the page and a new page would soon need to be started.
“All these names,” he said, staring at the page with much, mournful thought. “The young, the old, the wise and the stupid. Some magical, some of them who are just plain - weirdos”, he caught Benjamin’s anxious face staring up at him. He’d forgotten all about him; imagine that! After it had taken him so long to find him. The crow screeched angrily, reminding the reaper to get a move on.
The reaper waved a bony hand at the crow in annoyance, which caused the bird to chirp pompously and commence pruning its heavily tattered feathers. It seemed that the more the bird did this, the worse his appearance became.
The grim reaper strode up towards his upside-down hostage, pressing a bony finger to what should have been his lips to warn Benjamin to be quiet.
“You have been ridiculously difficult to keep up with,” the reaper sighed, his voice was slow and tired. There was nothing malicious about the way he addressed Benjamin, only his appearance seemed hostile. He didn’t appear to have a scythe with him either, which relieved Benjamin ever so slightly.
“I value my life,” Benjamin said suddenly and bravely.
The reaper winced, obviously irritated that Benjamin had spoken.
“Ah, alright”, said the reaper, a somewhat sarcastic tone to his voice. “Which part? The part when you cheated on your wife or the part when you gave away your only son away to an orphanage?”
The captive opened his mouth to object, but unfortunately all that the reaper said was true.
“You know why I’m here?”
“Y-you want my soul,” Black replied, closing his eyes, as if expecting to be attacked right there and then. His voice was weak and fragile and any hope of surviving this nightmare had left him. The cold, winter air sunk into him and his body felt numb and feeble; even if the reaper unhooked him and gave him a running chance, Benjamin felt unconvinced of his ability to get away on time.
The reaper looked once again to the scruffy, black crow, who was still trying to groom itself with little effect.
”What do you think Torvus? Should we spare his soul?” he asked the bird casually.
The crow looked away and pretended he hadn’t heard anything, which made the reaper frown exasperatedly and proceed with his enquiries.
“I don’t want your soul,” he said to dangling Black, “I want your son.”
The words echoed through Benjaminís brain I want your son. but he couldn’t comprehend them. He had been sure that this night was about him. He had packed everything, he had wrote a very detailed will and had torn most of his hair out in the process. And after all of this he wasn’t going to lose his soul? He wasn’t going to die?
I want your son, The words brought back so much guilt and so much misery to Benjamin that he almost wished he was going to die at that moment.
“I-I havenít seen the boy since he was a baby,” he told the reaper miserably, “I don’t know where he is, I’ve never searched for him.”
The reaper brought his great, horrifying, skull face so close to Benjamin’s that Benjamin could feel his icy, lifeless breath.
“That’s alright,” the spectre said softly and slyly, “because all I need is his name.”
Benjamin glanced at the leather bound book, clutched tightly in the reaper’s bony hands and saw the names still scribbling themselves onto the pages. He took a deep, ragged breath and whispered his son’s life away.